Chapter 15

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She could have slapped me. She could have stormed up to me, pulled her fist as far back as she could reach and punched me hard across the face. It still wouldn’t be as devastating as those six words. Woods reaches out with his arms, holding them around me like he’s afraid I’m going to drop Calliope, or maybe just to take her from me, but I don’t relinquish her. The news of Christian being in imminent danger, that he might be hurt or worse, only makes me cling more tightly to our daughter.

“Ros…”

She shakes her head, then dashes the tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands and turns away from me. The police officer who has spent all afternoon keeping me back is standing a few feet away from us, facing the building and listening to the words coming through the speaker attached to his shoulder. She grabs his arm to get his attention.

“I need to know about the lab.”

“Ma’am, step back please.” He takes hold of her forearms, the same as he did to me, and tries to steer her back towards the crowd. She shakes him off, refusing to be dismissed.  

“This is my company and I need to know what’s happening to my people down there.”

“I’m sure you’re worried, but I don’t have any information for you at this time. If you could just step back and…”

“Christian Grey is trapped in that lab!”  She screams the words at him and waves her arm in the direction of the still smoking building. Behind me, the whispers of speculation and prayers from the crowd of onlookers that have been like a constant buzzing background noise for the last few hours goes silent. There is a reporter standing only twenty feet away from us and she stops in the middle of whatever she’s saying into the camera to gape back at us. Everything seems to stop. One second in time that’s suspended outside of reality, and then it all comes crashing down.

The police officer grabs the radio and reiterates what Ros just told him into it, which comes across more as confirmation than new information. Someone behind me shouts that Christian is dead and the sentiment is carried through the crowd like the swell of a wave, repeated over and over again.

“For god’s sake!” Ros shouts, her words like venom as she turns to face them. “His child is right here!”

“Ros!” My eyes flash in warning, then I turn to Woods in a panic. My hands shake as I reach out for him and simultaneously lower Calliope’s face to my shoulder. “Your jacket, now! Give me your jacket.”

He shrugs out of the dark gray suit jacket and hands it over to me. I manage to throw it over Calliope just before the reporter is able navigate her way across the glass covered sidewalk with her camera crew and shoves her microphone in my face.

“Mrs. Grey, KIRO 7 news. Can you confirm that your husband is trapped inside the laboratory where the explosion took place?”

“I, uh…” Calliope starts to cry again, incensed as she fights against my hold to get out from under the jacket. The reporter’s eyes flash down to her shape in my arms with a desperate kind of hunger. She covers the microphone with her hand and leans into her film crew.

“Keep the camera on the baby.”

Shit. I turn my back on her and look at our nanny, hoping my eyes convey how desperately I need to her listen and not ask questions. “Kensie, take Calliope. Go back to the house and pretend like everything is normal. Mommy and Daddy are just working late. We’ll meet you there as soon as we can.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I move between Kensie and the camera, using my body to block as much of Calliope as I can while I shift her into the nanny’s arms just in case the jacket slips. “Keep her covered.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kensie reaches down for my hand and squeezes my fingers. It’s a simple gesture of support, caring, but it feels too much like a condolence. I yank my hand out of her hold like she’s burned me.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey.”

“It’s fine, just go.”

She nods, then wraps Calliope tighter in her arms as she turns to leave. The crowd behind her is tight, rowdy with the arrival of those with family members who work in the building, and my heart clenches while I watch her try to push through them. I nearly call her back when I see her and my still crying child being jostled by people trying to get the officer at the line’s attention by screaming their questions over the constant noise of the crowd.  

“Woods, go with Calliope,” I say, not taking my eyes off Kensie’s ponytail, the only part of her I can track through the sea of people. “Don’t let anyone near her and keep reporters away from the gates once you get home. I don’t want her to be scared.”

“Mrs. Grey…” He leans in real close to keep the microphones still held in my direction from picking up what he’s saying. “My orders come for your husband and I’ve been instructed never to leave your side.”

“Then he can yell at me for sending you away after they pull him out of that lab!” I should care that there are cameras on me. I should care that everyone within earshot is hanging on my every word, hoping for some kind of new information I might have simply because of who I am to the company’s CEO. But I don’t. The only thing I care about is what is happening to my husband right now and that Calliope isn’t exposed and put in danger of being targeted because we weren’t careful enough with her in a crowd of strangers. Still, he doesn’t move to follow after Kensie.

“Mrs. Grey, perhaps you should come back to the house with—“

“No! No, I’m not going anywhere.” I lean in too, meeting him the rest of the way, and wrap my arms around his neck in a hug so that I can press my lips right up to his ear. “Please, Evan. The only thing that is going to keep me together right now is knowing that Calliope is at home safe. I need you to make sure that happens. I need you to make sure that she’s not scared. Please.”

He hesitates, but eventually nods. I mouth the words ‘thank you’ to him, and he turns me back to face Ros, Andrea, and Olivia.

“Those three,” he says, pointing at each of them in turn with his index finger. “You never leave their side. Do you understand me? Not for anything.”

The look on Ros’s face as she stares at the building tells me that she’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s an easy promise for me to make.

“I won’t leave until he’s out.”

“Alright. Then… keep your cell on you, and take this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slender black cylinder. I recognize it instantly, because Luke made me carry a similar one last year after we found out Leila was following me. Pepper spray.

“Stay safe, Ana.” It’s the first time he’s used my name instead of Mrs. Grey, and I once again have to bite my lip to keep it from trembling. I give him a nod, because it’s all I can manage, and he turns and snakes through the crowd, following Kensie and Calliope to the car. It’s one weight of a million lifted off my shoulders and I get just one second to breathe freely. But sending my bodyguard away has immediate consequences and it comes in the form of hands that grab me from behind.

“Mrs. Grey, do you have any information to give the public regarding Christian Grey’s condition?”

The reporter. Without Woods hovering inches behind me, she’s immediately more aggressive. I try to take a step back, but she takes one with me, her microphone held so closely to my lips I’m sure she’s picking up the sounds of my breathing. It’s suffocating and more than a little intimidating, but thankfully the sound of clacking heels and repeated no, no, no’s bring Jaqueline to my rescue.

“That’ll be enough, Susan,” she says, getting in between me and the reporter with her arms held out in front of her like a protective barrier. “Mrs. Grey will not be answering any questions at this time.”

The reporter leans back on her heels and raises a skeptical eyebrow at her, but Jaqueline holds her ground. With a shake of her head, Miss Kiro 7 News steps back and motions for her camera crew to follow her back to their previous recording spot. They stop though, when an important looking town car pulls up on the street just behind us and Carrick steps out.

“Mayor Grey!” She picks up the cord to her microphone and makes towards the street, but the crowd keeps her from ambushing him. The frustration of being denied access to yet another important interview is clear on her face as she holds out her microphone and attempts to shout questions over the noise of people, street traffic, and emergency crews, but by the time Carrick makes it to me his security team has escorted her away.

“Ana,” Carrick breathes in relief, immediately pulling me into a tight embrace. “Thank god, you’re not hurt.”

I shake my head against the lapels of his jacket, holding back tears. “I wasn’t here. I was walking and I heard the explosion…” There’s more I want to say, but my throat is growing tighter with each and every word.

“Where’s Calliope?”

“Home,” I reply lamely. “With Kensie and Woods.”

“And Christian? Is he…?”

I can’t hold it back anymore. I let out a choking sob into his chest and start to shake. “I don’t know, I don’t know. All they’ve told me is there was an explosion in the R&D lab and he was inside. I don’t even know if they’re trying to get him out…”

“Let me see what I can find out.” He kisses the crown of my head and then releases me, moving with purpose towards the same officer who has rebuked both Ros and I all day. I turn and glance back at Christian’s partner and best friend. She has one arm folded so tightly across the front of her designer jacket that I’m not sure how she’s breathing, and three fingers from her other hand are pressed to her lips.

“They’re going to get him out,” I tell her, wrapping an arm around her back and laying my head on her shoulder. “They have to get him out.”

“Unlimited energy,” she replies. Her eyes are glassy with worry again and I’m not entirely sure the words she says aloud are directed at me. “This is what happens when you try to fuck around with the laws of physics. God damn it, I told him…” Her lips press tightly together and she takes a deep breath through her nose. “I swear to god, if he makes it out of there alive, I’m going to kill him.”

With all the uncertainty still hanging in the air, her words would be a cruel if I couldn’t see how much it hurts her to say them. She’s terrified, not just for her building or for her company, but for her best friend. So I squeeze her tighter, and let myself fall apart on her pretty jacket.

“I know. Me too.”

“Oh, Ana…” She turns and takes me into her arms, holding me up as I devolve into a sobbing mess. There’s too much here that’s too familiar. My eyes screw tightly shut to fight against the tears rolling down my cheeks, but blocking out everything going on around me only allows new visions to fill my head. Memories of Christian in a hospital bed, battered and unresponsive. The pain on his face during physical therapy that helped him regain his strength after surgery. The sound of the gunshot that gave him the wound that made physical therapy necessary in the first place.

“Oh god, what is it?”

I look up from Ros’ shoulder and see Elliot standing a few yards away. His eyes are wide and terrified. His hair is windblown. His cheeks are pink. Did he run here from Escala?

“What’s happened?” he asks again, moving closer to me. “Christian isn’t…?”

I shake my head, or maybe I’m just shaking so hard it does it all on its own. “I don’t know.”

“Jesus.” He takes me from Ros and tucks me inside his strong arms, then looks over the heads of the police officers and paramedics roaming around the empty space in front of us like they’re going to have all the answers. “Dad? Dad!”

One arm leaves my shoulder as Elliot reaches up to wave his father over to us, and while Carrick approaches, he turns me so that I’m facing him too. It’s not just Carrick walking towards us. He’s flanked on either side by a police officer and a fireman, both of whom wear important looking badges that I assume mean they’re in command.

“Well?” Elliot demands.

“The fire from explosion caused a collapse at the entryway. The parking garage above them caved in and now they’re trapped behind a wall of rubble and rebar. We can’t shift anything until we know it won’t cause a further collapse.”

Elliot looks at the fire chief. “I can help with that. I’m an engineer and I built this building. I know everything about it, brick by brick.”

“Good, get to the lobby,” the fire chief says. “My men will tell you where to go from there.”

Elliot nods and runs forward, but no one has asked or answered the only question I care about. “What about the people inside? Is anyone… hurt?” It’s the most I can stand to ask.

The police chief frowns. “We’re not sure, Mrs. Grey. The power system has failed inside the lab and all of our efforts to get some form of communication inside have failed.”

“What do you mean failed?”

“Oh my god.” Ros hand drops from her mouth to her chest. “He was worried about hacking… The lab was encased in lead so outside signals couldn’t get through to the systems inside.”

Because he had been hacked before. Because Andrew Lincoln had used the GEH servers against him before.

Ros takes a breath, and regains all of the composure she’s let slip since she was pulled out of the building. “So, we don’t even know if they’re alive in there?”

“No, ma’am. But we are doing everything in our power to get to them and get them out safely, I promise you that.”

“Oh, god!” I double over and begin sobbing into my hands again. Carrick is at my side in the next instant, pulling me back into him and nodding towards the officers.

“Then get to it, Captain. Keep me updated of any progress.”

“Yes, sir,” the officer responds, and both he and the fire chief turn and hurry away from us.

Carrick attempts to comfort me, but there’s no way I could find comfort in the hours that follow. I had thought, foolishly, that Elliot’s involvement in the rescue would move things along. That he would be so desperate to save his brother that he’d throw caution to the wind and dive head first into the debris that had him enclosed inside the lab. But he doesn’t. He spends hours evaluating the structural integrity of the support beams surrounding the caved in opening, ensuring that moving any of the concrete won’t cause further collapse. The logical part of me understands why this is a necessity. But my heart seems to tear further apart with every passing minute that Christian doesn’t emerge from the GEH building.

As the sun sinks low in the sky, and the shadows from the other skyscrapers around us grow longer over the sidewalk where we stand, the crowd noise begins to die down. Dusk sets in and the only sound left is staccato thud of helicopter blades over head and the shouts of the emergency crews below. I can’t feel anything. Not the pangs of hunger or the dry ache of thirst. My phone has been buzzing non-stop in my bag, but I ignore it. When candles start being passed around, like defeat has been accepted and we’re now collectively mourning the loss of the eight people now confirmed to have been in the lab at the time of the explosion, I hear a voice echo inside my head that I haven’t heard outside of my nightmares since that fateful night last July.

Looks like I still got him in the end.

“No!” I scream, pulling each of my hands out of Carrick’s and Ros’ hold. They look at me like they think I’ve lost it, and maybe I have. I shake my head, trying to dispel the echo of Andrew Lincoln’s voice, and back away from my loved ones. “I can’t stand here anymore. I can’t stay here and wait, doing nothing!” The police charged with crowd control have thinned out over the last few hours, giving me an opportunity to slip through and make it to the building if I run. I take it.

Carrick shouts my name to get me to come back and the few officers that are too far away to actually do anything issue warnings, but that’s not what stops me. A pair of strong hands latches onto my arm from behind and yanks me back. I look over my shoulder and nearly break down again when I see who has ahold of me.

“Ma’am, get back!” An officer yells at me, his hand on the gun at his hip as he runs towards us, but Luke holds out his hand to try and diffuse the situation.

“I’ve got her, Officer,” he says. “Her husband is inside, you have to understand.”

“Yeah, well.” He takes his hand off his gun, and motions with his head towards the crowd. “Just get back in line.”

“Yes, sir.” Luke nods, then tightens his fingers around my arm as he leads me back to the same place I stood next to Carrick and Ros, except now Jade is there too, waiting with a jacket and a pair of sneakers in her hand.

“I saw you on TV,” she says, holding the shoes out for me. “I thought you could use these.”

“Thank you,” I whisper, unable to fully express my gratitude under the weight of my grief. She smiles anyway, and helps hold me up as I switch out my shoes.

“I’ll take those, Mrs. Grey,” Andrea says, reaching out for my heels. I hand them over but look down at them in disgust. They’re a part of today. They’re a part of this nightmare.

“I never want to see those again,” I tell her. She nods, then my attention is drawn away by the jacket Luke drapes over my shoulders.

Finally, long after dark has fallen and the clock has ticked past midnight, the metallic whir of saws echoing through the air stops. My breath catches in my throat and my eyes move away from the front doors for the first time in hours, searching for paramedics preparing to enter the building to care for the wounded after they’ve been extracted. There’s nothing though. Only a heavy silence that permeates everything around me.

My heart thuds in my ears. I shiver, but not because I’m cold. My future, my entire reason for living, is hanging in the balance, and I know in the deepest parts of me that this is it. I’m about to get the answers I’ve been waiting for all day. But when five minutes turn to twenty, then thirty… I’m not certain I’m ready for them anymore.

Please be okay.

Please be okay.

Please be okay.

“Look!” someone behind me yells. My eyes, closed in silent prayer, snap open and turn back to the doors. The emergency crews are wheeling a gurney out of the building and the sight of it floods my entire body with fear until I see the group of men ambling out behind it. Barney, Welch, three men in ash darkened lab coats, Taylor, and then…

“Christian!” I sprint forward and for the first time, no one stops me. He turns in the direction I call out his name, then abandons the medical professionals there to examine him and his team, and rushes towards me. We meet at the top of the steps, halfway between the building and the sidewalk, and I leap into his open arms. Dust and ash from his clothes surround us in a choking, murky cloud when my body makes impact with his, but I don’t notice. I’m single minded as my lips come crashing into his.

“Christian!” I sob into his mouth. “Oh, thank God! Thank God! I was so scared I was going to lose you.”  

“Never. I’m right here, baby.”

A days worth of anxiety and grief begin pouring out of me, and I can’t hold it back. His arms snake around me, holding me against him as though he’ll never let me go again, and he whispers a long myriad of promises and reassurances into my hair. I take a deep breath, and manage to calm myself enough to pull away from him, then glance up into his eyes.

“Oh my god, you’re bleeding…”

“Oh.” He reaches up and touches his hair line, which is matted with dark, congealed blood. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

But he’s not. Now that the initial relief of knowing he’s safe has passed, I can see the damage. He looks as though he’s been torn straight out of war movie. Every part of him is gray with dust, except the lines down the side of his face that are streaked with the color of flesh from sweat dripping down his brow. His fine clothes are branded with large swaths of black from the heat and flames of the explosion. His normal musk is gone, replaced by something acrid that has a distinct chemical quality to it. His beautiful face is painted with exhaustion.

“Christian Trevelyan-Grey!” Ros storms up into the space between us and shoves him roughly enough that he stumbles backward a few paces. He quickly regains his equilibrium, and looks at her in confusion.

“Ros?”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”

“It was an acc-” His words cut off as she shoves him again, though he doesn’t lose his balance the way he did before. They stand a few yards apart, staring each other down until Ros finally breaks with a chest heaving gasp and throws her arms around him. “I am going to yell at you so hard tomorrow.”

“I know,” he breathes back. “I know.”

She lowers her face into his dust covered shirt, takes a deep breath, and then moves aside for Carrick. Both men seem to stiffen as they stand before one another, waiting for the other to speak first. Apparently, not even tragedy is enough to break through this cold war they’re currently fighting.

“Are you hurt?” Carrick asks at last. Christian shakes his head.

“No, I’m fine. It was close but… I’m fine.”

“Good.” The Adam’s apple in Carrick’s throat bobs as he nods his head, and, after a moment of hesitation, he steps forward and wraps his arms around his son. “Don’t do that to me again, Christian.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Carrick nods, and sniffs hard. “I know.”

They pull apart, but Carrick doesn’t let go of Christian’s shoulder. Instead, he glances behind him, at the building, and his face turns serious.

“Look, I need to warn you. They’re going to–”

“Mr. Grey?” We all turn and see a young police officer approach the stairs from the direction of the building. Carrick’s hand immediately falls from Christian’s shirt.

“Yes?” he answers.

“I’m going to need you to come with me to triage, sir. Have a medical team look you over.”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That’s not an option.”

“It’s always an option. I know what an AMA is, consider this a refusal to be treated.”

“Well, if you’re refusing medical care, then I need you to step over here so we can have talk about the incident. I’m going to need a statement.”

“Oh.” He looks around blankly for a moment, caught unprepared, then nods. But Carrick calls out to stop him as he begins to follow the officer away from us.

“Christian!” He stops and turns back again. Carrick’s jaw tenses as though he’s trying to find a way to work around something he can’t bring himself to say. “Just… don’t say anything without a lawyer present.”

“What’s going on?”

“Sir, if you’ll come with me.” The officer tries to nudge him forward, but Christian doesn’t move.

“Dad?”

“Go, Son,” Carrick says. “Just remember that you don’t have to answer anything without a lawyer.”

I watch Christian’s chest expand with a deep breath before he breaks eye contact with his father and moves to follow the officer across the courtyard.

“Wait, is he being arrested?” I ask.

“No,” Carrick confirms. “Just detained until he can be questioned.”

“Questioned about what? What’s going on?”

That same look of being torn apart by some unsaid words crosses his face, and he shakes his head again. “You should call his lawyer, Ana.”

“Lawyer? You’re his lawyer, Carrick.”

“No, I’m not. Not anymore.” He takes a few steps closer to me, then hooks his fingers around my arm and pulls me aside. “Ana, this isn’t going to go away. He caused an explosion in the middle of the city. Three civilians were injured and I don’t even know what’s happened to the guy they brought out of the lab on a stretcher. The city of Seattle is going to have to open an investigation into what happened here today, and I’m the mayor now. It’s my job to oversee that investigation, so I can’t be apart of it. I can’t help you.”

I blink, feeling like all the air is sucked out of my lungs at once. “What does an investigation mean?”  

He swallows, and shakes his head again. “Call his lawyer, Ana.”

I nod, then move to Ros. Without Carrick, I’m not exactly sure which lawyer I need to get down here and she knows Christian’s corporate legal team better than anyone. She gives me a name, Andrea gets me a number, and thirty minutes later my husband has a team of men in pristine suits behind him refusing to let him answer any questions. It drags the entire interrogation process out, which seems excessive since he hasn’t been charged with anything. Elliot can’t stay to wait for answers because he’s got a new baby at home and Ros opts to go with the man who was injured in the explosion, a lab tech named Sheldon who broke his leg under falling debris. When the first rays of dawn start to color the sky above us, it’s only Luke and I left, and he holds tightly to my hand until Christian finally returns.

“Ready?” he asks, his voice like gravel and his eyes heavy with fatigue.

“Yes,” I reply, then turn to Luke. “Thank you for waiting with me.”

“Of course. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Christian gives him a tight smile and half a nod, then takes my hand out of his and leads me down to the street. There’s a car waiting for us, though it’s not being driven by anyone I recognize. I can see the clear wire connected to his earpiece though, so I assume it’s someone on Christian’s security team.

“Where to, Mr. Grey?” the driver asks.

“Home, please.” The driver nods and signals to turn into oncoming traffic, and Christian’s head falls against the headrest.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I don’t even know.” He opens his eyes and looks at me, but the cool confidence he normally exudes is gone. “We thought we’d figured it out. Welch built a prototype and I went down there to see it in action, but the cooling mechanisms gave out thirty seconds into his demonstration. There were safety precautions in place and every single one of them failed. Over and over again. We did everything we could to stop it, but it just kept getting hotter and hotter until eventually…”

“It exploded,” I finish for him.

He nods. “Thankfully the blast went up instead of out so we were able to avoid the shockwave. But everything was on fire then, blocking our way out, and the suppression system was damaged in the explosion. It took us over an hour to get it under control and then everything caved in. It was like every time we solved one crisis, something else happened.”

I shiver as I imagine what he’s gone through, then unbuckle my seatbelt and crawl into his lap.

“Ana…”

“No,” I whimper, cutting him off before he can tell me to get back in my own seat. My fingers curl into his shirt and I lay my head down on his shoulder, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall of his chest. It takes him a few seconds to accept that I’m not going to let him move me back onto the leather seat next to him, but once he does his arms wrap around me and he lays his cheek against my hair.

“I’m sorry, Christian.”

“We’re okay. Everyone was okay.” He kisses the top of my head, and we make the rest of the drive home in silence. The sky overhead is orange with the rising sun by the time we pull into the driveway. It’s nearly seven, and we should both be dead with exhaustion. But if Kensie got Calliope down at a decent hour last night, she should be waking at any time.

“I need a shower,” Christian tells me once we step into the kitchen.

I nod. “I’m going to check on the baby. I’ll be up in a minute.”

“Okay.” He leans over and kisses me softly on the lips, then untangles our fingers and pulls away from me. I feel immediately bereft. Not enough of the doubt and dread that plagued me all day yesterday have been washed away for me to feel comfortable having him out of my reach. I need him to hold me. I need to feel his heart beating under my hands and the heat of his skin pressed against mine. I decide I’m going to slip into the shower with him, maybe ask him to make love to me before we finally give in to our heavy eyelids and get some much needed sleep, but first I make my way up to the nursery.

The door to the guest room where Kensie sleeps when she stays overnight is closed, so I assume Calliope is still fast asleep. With as much care as I can manage, I ease open the door and tip toe across the floor, moving as slowly as possible as I glance over the railing of her crib. She’s staring at the mobile over her head, silent but wide awake. That is, until she sees me.

“Mama?”

My shoulders fall as all my plans for this morning fly out the window, but I smile and reach down to scoop her in my arms. She molds her body around mine and after giving her a few good morning kisses, I get her changed and let her help me pick out what she wants to wear for the day before I take her down to the kitchen for breakfast.

I expect things to be different. Our staff surely saw the news coverage of the accident and assumed that they wouldn’t be needed today, so I mentally go through what’s already been prepared for Calliope and debate whether or not I’ll need to make something for Christian or if he’ll want to get straight into bed. But when we get downstairs, it’s like I’ve walked into the movie Groundhog’s Day.

Gail stands in front of the stove, an omelet frying in the pan in front of her. Kensie is sipping a cup of coffee as she lays Calliope’s breakfast down on the tray of her high chair. And Christian stands behind the counter, dressed in a fresh suit, typing furiously on the iPhone in his hand. The scene is too familiar, too much like any other day. Like we haven’t been living through a nightmare for the past 16 hours.

“What are you doing?” I ask Christian as I place Calliope in her highchair. He doesn’t answer me right away, choosing instead to finish his email, or text, or whatever it is he’s doing with his phone.

“I’ve got to get back to the office,” he says, after finally putting down his phone and picking up the mug of coffee Gail has poured for him.

“What? What do you mean you’re going back to the office? Don’t you think you should stay home and take it easy for a few days?”

His phone buzzes on the counter and he picks it up while he answers me. “I can’t. I’ve got to be there to survey the damage, meet with my lawyer, and work with Andrea to find an offsite facility that’s large enough to relocate the fusion project to. Jacqueline is in a panic. This whole ordeal is going to be a PR nightmare and I’m going to need all the public support I can get now that everyone knows what we’re doing.”

My stomach drops. “Wait. You’re… you’re not going to scrap the project?”

“Of course not. We had a breakthrough yesterday.”

“Yeah, right before it exploded.”

“And we’ve learned from it.” He drains the rest of his coffee, slips his phone into his pocket, and moves across the kitchen to give me a kiss goodbye. “You should stay home today. Get some sleep.”

“Me? What about you?”

“I’ll be fine.” His hand brushes my cheek, and he gives me a small smile that I think is meant to be reassuring, but it misses that mark by about a hundred miles. I’m at a loss for words. What could I possibly say to explain why I don’t want him to go back to that building today that isn’t already obvious?

He leans down to kiss the top of Calliope’s head then looks up as the security officer who drove us home this morning enters the kitchen. Christian nods to him, then tells me he loves me again before following him out of the kitchen. And I watch him go, feeling like I’m stranded on an island in the middle of shark infested waters.

Next Chapter

Chapter 14

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Kate is only able to hold Kennedy for about ten minutes or so before the exhaustion from labor really hits her. She fights it, but her body is weak and the nurses insist she get some rest before they make a first attempt at breastfeeding. Reluctantly, she allows Elliot to take their daughter out of her arms, then we all watch as the nurse takes feet and hand prints and lays her on the scale.

I can’t take my eyes off of her. Her tiny fingers. Her squirmy little legs. My mind immediately begins to divide her features between Kate and Elliot, but it’s difficult. Calliope is my twin. Well, except for her eyes, which belong to Christian. Kennedy seems much more evenly split. Both her parents are blonde, so the wisps of wheat colored hair that top her head aren’t a surprise. She’ll be beautiful, like her mother, but her features will be strong and pronounced like her father. Not even her eyes, the same green as Kate’s but flecked with Elliot’s blue, could be claimed by just one of them. But the combination is gorgeous.

“God, look at her,” Elliot says, awed. “She’s so pretty.”

I nod. “Yeah. She is.”

“She’s… perfect.” A smile plays at his lips, but never fully forms, and I think it’s because he’s too distracted trying to memorize her. He’s raptured, already falling head over heels in love, and watching him gets me choked up.

“We’ll take her to the nursery, Mr. Grey,” the nurse smiles. “Your family will be able to see her there once you’re ready.”

“Thank you.” He nods, so the nurse places Kennedy in a plastic bin and begins to push her from the room, but Elliot calls out to stop her. “Wait!”

“Yes, Mr. Grey?”

“Just…” He takes a nervous breath. “Just be careful with her. It took my wife nine months to make her.”

The nurse smiles. “No need to worry, Mr. Grey. I’ll make sure little Miss Kennedy here is attended to like the VIP patient she is.”

“Good.” He nods again and when the nurse leaves with the baby, he immediately returns to Kate’s bedside and takes her hand. She’d been dozing, and Elliot’s touch wakes her with a start. “I’m sorry,” he says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like someone ripped my insides out through my vagina.” She attempts a laugh, but the pitiful sound dies out quickly as her eyelids start to droop again.

“Then, I’ll let you rest and Ana and I will go tell the family.” He picks up her hand and kisses each of her fingers. “You are an incredible woman, Katherine. Thank you for what you’ve given me today.”

“Mmm.” Her hands reach out blindly for him and when she touches the side of his face, she pulls him into her until their lips meet. “I love you, Elliot.”

“I love you too. Now sleep, baby. I’ll come check on you in a bit.”

She tries to nod, but her she’s already drifting off. Her eyelids close and her head lolls to the side. Elliot brushes the backs of his fingers over her cheek and looks down on her with a kind of veneration that is too personal for me to intrude upon. I step out to wait in the hallway and, seconds later, Elliot joins me. He eases the door closed so that he won’t wake Kate, but once the metal parts of the latch clink together, he turns and nearly collapses against the wall.

“You alright?” I check, moving closer and placing a supportive hand on his arm. He nods, but closes his eyes.

“I’m a father. This morning, I was just… checking a foundation against a blueprint and now I’m a father.”

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“And terrifying. I can do this, right?”

“Of course you can. Elliot, all that little girl needs from you is to love her unconditionally, and you have the biggest heart of anyone I know.”

He smiles. “It’s amazing how fast they wrap you around their finger, right? I thought it was going to feel weird, but it doesn’t. It feels like she was always here. Like she’s always been mine. Shit, mine. I have a daughter.”

“Yes, you do.” I laugh. “And a gorgeous one at that.”

He holds his arms out and pulls me into a lung crushing hug. “Thank you for being there for my wife today. I know going back there must have been hard for you.”

I inhale deeply, but squeeze him right back. “I’ll always be there. For all three of you.”

“I know, and that’s why I love you so much. Really, though. I love you, Ana. I’m grateful everyday that Christian found you and brought you into our family. You make us all a little bit better.”

The honest confession takes me off guard, so I’m unprepared for the wave of emotion that hits me. My throat feels tight, my eyes well with tears… I sniff, pull back, and give him a skeptical look. “You going soft on me, Elliot?”

He grins. “My daughter was born twenty minutes ago. Give me a pass this one time, huh?”

“No pass needed. I love you too, Elliot.”

He leans down and kisses me hard on the forehead, then hooks his arm through mine and drags me through the maternity ward so we can break the good news to the rest of the family.

When we come through the double doors, we find everyone seated together in a tight group of chairs close to the information desk. Calliope is standing on wobbily legs in Christian’s lap, facing him, with her wrists clasped tightly in his hands for balance. She’s clearly enjoying the attention of everyone around her, and as she stares pointedly at her daddy, she happily babbles away to her heart’s content. He responds every time she pauses to take a breath, like they’re having the most engaging conversation he’s ever been apart of, and my already full heart expands nearly to the point of bursting.

“There they are!” Grace exclaims, jumping out of her seat and rushing over to us. “Well?”

Elliot grins. “Her name is Kennedy. She weighs 8lbs, and 3oz. She has all ten fingers, and all ten toes, and both she and Kate are doing great.”

“Oh, congratulations, sweetheart!” Grace throws her arms around Elliot as joyful tears run down her cheeks. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Congratulations, Son,” Carrick says, taking Grace’s place the moment she releases Elliot.

“Thanks, Dad.” Carrick pats his back a few times, the way guys always do to make physical contact between them less intimate, and then Mia slides in to wrap her arms around his waist.

“Can we see her?” Christian asks, trying to speak through the fingers Calliope keeps putting in his mouth.

“Yeah, she’s in the nursery.” Elliot turns to lead us back through the doors we just came through, and Grace reaches down to take Carrick’s hand. Mr. and Mrs. Kavanagh grip both of Elliot’s hands, congratulating him and saying again and again how proud they are to have him as a son in law.

“Ah, thanks, Ma,” Elliot replies, his face flushed with embarrassment. Mrs. Kavanagh kisses his cheek and then hurries through the doors after Grace and Carrick. Calliope leans over, arms stretched out for me, so I take her and follow suit. Christian’s hand rests softly on my lower back and when the doors swing closed behind us, he places a kiss against my temple.

“Hey,” I say softly, then reach up to grab his chin and tilt his face towards mine. I stop and kiss him. Really kiss him. “I love you.”

He hums with pleasure. “Not like I love you.” His lips press to mine again, softly this time, and quick, like a secret just between the two of us. “Now, behave,” he whispers. “Or I’ll pull you into an empty room and finish what I started this morning.”

“And that’s supposed to make me behave because…?”

He laughs, then nudges me forward again, and I pout a little as we make our way to the nursery.

There are four other newborns currently being adored by their families, so the nursery is crowded. Christian and I stay back and watch Kennedy being introduced to her grandparents through the large viewing window in the hallway. Mia leans as far forward as the glass will allow, her elbows resting on the metal ledge between the window and the drywall. She looks the way I felt when I watched them put my brand new niece into Kate’s arms for the first time. I reach over and affectionately rub my hand over her back.

“Do you see the baby?” Christian asks, leaning closer into Calliope, who is still sitting on my hip.

“UnNen,” she replies, pressing her hands against the glass and looking at Elliot. It’s her best attempt at ‘Uncle’. The speech therapist Christian hired to work with her while she’s at school has already helped her develop language skills far beyond what’s expected for her age, especially in terms of vocabulary and the ability to repeat words we give her, but she still can’t quite grasp the ‘L’ sound.

“That’s right,” he says. “That’s Uncle Elliot and Aunt Kate’s baby. Kennedy. She’s your cousin.”

Calliope gasps and stares at the pink bundle Grace lifts into her arms. When she turns back to Christian her fingers curl into tight fists and she shakes excitedly. “Ooh!”

We both laugh.

“Yeah, I think they’re going to be best friends,” I say, brushing my finger under her chin. Christian nods. We watch for several minutes, until both sets of Grandparents give their final kisses to Elliot and the baby and step out into the hall to join us.

“My turn!” Mia says. She rushes around the corner, slowing only when she comes through the door of the nursery. Elliot looks up and motions through the glass for Christian and I to join them.

“Do you want to meet, Kennedy?” I ask Calliope. She bounces in my arms.

“Kenny!”

“Oh my god, Kenny!” Grace chirps. “What a perfect nickname, and from her favorite big cousin!”

Christian’s face twists into a look between displeasure and uncertainty. “Let’s see how Kate feels about nicknames before we start assigning them, huh?”

Grace sighs. “Alright, but I think it’s going to stick. We’re going to go peek in on Kate. Let us know if you need anything.”

Christian leans down so his mother can kiss his cheek, but even though he shakes the hands of both of Kate’s parents and offers them his congratulations, he and Carrick hardly even look at each other. This is supposed to be a joyous day, for the whole family, and this new animosity between them stands in stark contradiction to that. It’s not something on want for Kate on her special day, and I’m about to tell them as much, but Christian pulls against my hand and Grace hurries Carrick down the hall. I can’t even express my distaste to my husband, because he’s in too much of a hurry to get into the nursery. As is the baby in my arms, who is now chanting nonsense at me to push me along.

“She’s so tiny,” Mia says, just after we come through the door.

“Yeah, so don’t break her…” There are obvious nerves in Elliot’s voice and the overprotective way he stares down at his newborn daughter quickly washes away my irritation with Christian and his father. He glances up at us, rolling his eyes at the look on my face, and then nods to Christian.

“You wanna hold your god daughter?”

“Yeah, I do.” Mia sighs and moves to pass Kennedy to Christian, but the moment his hands touch her, Calliope screams.

“No!” She throws her body forward at Christian, nearly causing me to drop her. Without thinking, Elliot snatches Kennedy into his own arms, while Christian turns to keep Calliope from tumbling down onto the hard, linoleum floor.

“Calliope Katherine!” he scolds her, more frightened over her near fall than angry. “Just what in the world do you think you’re doing?”

“Mine, Dada. Mine!” She turns to look at the baby, her fingers digging into Christian’s shirt and her face scrunched up in anger. “No, Kenny!”

I bite down on my bottom lip. “Uh, oh…”

“You see,” Elliot says, chuckling. “I told you she was going to have a hard time not being the only little princess around here anymore.”

Christian sighs. “We’ll try again later. I read in those books last year that it’s a good idea to buy a gift from the baby to a new sibling to try and curtail jealousy issues and help win the older child over. Maybe that’s something we should try with Kennedy?”

I shrug, not too crazy about rewarding possessive behavior by giving her presents, but before we can discuss it further, a nurse comes in and smiles at all of us.

“Mrs. Grey is ready to try breastfeeding.”

“Oh good,” Elliot says. He looks down at Kennedy and smiles. “Let’s go find your mama, huh?”

He reaches over and grips Christian’s arm, then follows the nurse out of the nursery. Mia falls in line behind him, but as Christian adjusts Calliope in his arms and moves to take a step forward, I reach out and stop him.

“We should go.”

“She’s going to have to learn to share, Ana. Might as well start now.”

“No, not because of Calliope. Because of Kate.” He raises an eyebrow at me, so I continue. “This is the first day she has with Kennedy, and there’s a lot of us here. I remember being in her place, watching everyone pass my baby around when all I wanted was to have her for myself. We should give her today. We’ll visit once they’re home.”

“They’re going back to Escala, baby.”

“What?”

He nods. “My parents live three blocks away and Kate’s dad works right down the street. She wants to stay close while they adjust to having a new baby at home. They’re probably not going to move for a few weeks.”

“Oh…”

“We’ll figure it out. You don’t have to go back until you’re ready.”

I nod, then accept the hand he slips into mine as we leave the nursery. There’s a confidence in his voice that tells me he thinks I’ll be ready to go back sooner, rather than later, but I don’t. That place still haunts me. Every time I go to work and see the shadow it casts over the street below. Every time I see a forwarding address on a piece of mail. Every time I close my eyes and smell the flowers Gail kept on the table, mixing with the rusty scent of blood. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to go back, and the thought is like a dark rain cloud hovering over me as we walk through the parking lot and make our way back home.

****

I go into work Monday morning with four inch heels and bright red lipstick. For the first time since I started, I opted not to drive into the city with Christian so we could drop Calliope off at daycare together. I’m already on emotionally shaky ground with Kate leaving the hospital with baby Kennedy this morning, knowing that she’s returning to Escala for at least the remainder of her maternity leave. It feels like an impenetrable barrier between me and my brand new niece, so I didn’t think I’d be able to handle Calliope’s tears while she begged for me not to leave her on top of the guilt I already feel knowing I’m not going to be able to be there for my best friend while she makes the transition into her new role as a mother. Not before the call I’ve scheduled with Carmen for this morning, which feels like it’ll make or break my career.

After Abby and I go through everything else on my calendar for today and I’ve given her specific instructions for the flowers I want waiting inside the apartment at Escala for when Kate gets home, she hurries out of my office and I turn my attention to my email. It’s filled with the usual mass dump of submissions for me to approve, so I take a quick sip of the latte I’d brought in with me this morning and click on the first one. It’s one of Tyler Sullivan’s authors, so I’m perhaps judging the content a little to harshly, but just as I start to think this one might not be completely unreadable, there’s a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I call.

“Mrs. Grey?” Jacki pokes her head inside, blushing like she’s embarrassed to be interrupting me. I give her my warmest smile and motion her inside.

“Good morning. What can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to make sure you saw the sample I sent to you this morning. I… uh, I took your advice and had the IT team restrict my submission inbox to romance novels and women’s fiction and changed my bio on the website. I spent all weekend reading what was sent to me. I’ve never loved my job so much.”

I smile. “Good. I’m really glad to hear that.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I found something I just really, really loved, so I wanted to come in here to, you know, make sure it got a fair shake.”

I scroll through my email until I find one from her. “For Kristen Paige?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I look at it right now.”

“Great.” Her face lights up and I can tell that beneath the professional composure she’s trying to maintain, deep down she’s holding back and a fangirl level of excitement. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Thank you, Jacki.”

The door closes again, and I send a quick email back to Tyler telling him to go ahead and send me the rest of the manuscript for the sample I just read before I click over to Jacki’s submission. I’m more curious about these few chapters than I have been over anything else sent to me so far.  Not just because it’s an opportunity for me to prove my methods are better, but because Jacki said her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. And while the Austen classic is a beautiful love story, I’m not sure how well an age of innocence type romance would fare in this day and age. But Jacki said she loved it, and if she can be used as representation for the audience that makes up 46% of all sales for mass produced paperbacks, I’m inclined to listen to her judgment.

Except, once I dive in, I learn quickly that this isn’t an age of innocence type story at all. There are no white knights or damsels in distress, only an innocent trust fund girl experiencing a real and satisfying sexual awakening with a hardened, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and the Beast, but with sex. A lot of sex. Hot, passionate, fiery, fantasy sex that makes me want to pull out a notepad and jot some ideas down to take home to Christian for us to try out tonight. All night…

“Ana?”

I jump and look up at the door with all the guilt of a child being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

“Yes, Abby?” I squeak.

Her brow knits together. “You alright?”

“Uh, yeah. Of course I am.”

“You look a little… flustered.”

“Oh. No, I’m fine. It’s just a little hot in here.”

Her eyes move up and dance around the room, like she’s looking for a source of heat that only I can feel. “No…”

“Must just be me then. What can I do for you, Abby?”

“Your call with Ms. Gallagher is in four minutes. I’ve got you all set up in the conference room so the construction noise outside doesn’t bother you.”

“Oh, thank you. That was really thoughtful.”

“Of course. Is there anything else I can get for you, Mrs. Grey… Er, sorry, Ana?”

“I think I’m all set.” I wink and she smiles back at me as she exits the room. There are only a few pages left of the sample I have in my inbox, so I minimize the window to read the rest later and gather everything I need for my meeting. As I walk through the open office towards the conference room, I pause at Jacki’s desk. She looks up when I place a hand on her shoulder and bend down so that I can speak softly enough that only she’ll be able to hear me.

“I absolutely loved it.”

Her face lights up. “Really?”

“Really. You’ve found a winner, Jacki. Get me the rest of the manuscript and we’ll get a contract drawn up for Ms. Paige.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ana,” I say softly, then turn back towards the conference room. After only a few steps though, I stop and face Jacki again. My hand reaches up to cover the bare part of my chest visible between the V-neck collar of my blouse so that she won’t be able to tell that I’m flushed. “Oh, and Jacki… get it to me today, huh?”

Apparently, I don’t fool her at all, because she grins knowingly back at me. “I’ll send it now.”

“Thank you.” I clear my throat, nod at Tyler, and hurry into the meeting room where I can close the door behind me.

Abby, ever thoughtful, has left a post it note on the table with the call in number for our meeting, so I dial and follow the prompts the robotic voice directs me through until it allows me to join the meeting.

“Good afternoon, did someone just join the call?” an unknown male voice answers.

“Uh, yes. This is Anastasia Grey, for Carmen Gallagher.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. My name is Hunter Leary, I’m Ms. Gallagher’s assistant. She’s just getting off another call. She’ll join momentarily.”

“Oh, great.” I reach out and mute the audio on my phone, and then start flipping through what I’ve prepared for this meeting. I don’t have much beyond numbers for similar novels published within the last five years, thanks to Scott after he killed my focus group, so I know that this is going to come down to me. How convincing I can be, and how much she really trusts me to do the job she hired me to do.

The phone beeps.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Carmen says. “Anastasia are you on the line?”

“Yes, Ms. Gallagher.”

“Great. Scott, what about you?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

My back stiffens and an acrid tastes creeps into my mouth. Shit, I hadn’t considered that Scott would be included in this call.

“Well, let’s jump into it then. What’s going on?”

“Uh…” I stutter, feeling like I’ve lost my bearings. “I, um, wanted to speak to you about the summer release we’re gearing up for.”

“What about it?”

I open my mouth to answer, but before I can get any words out, Scott cuts me off. “Anastasia and I are having a fundamental disagreement over which title we should be moving forward with. She’s found something more suited to her personal tastes and she wants to push it ahead of the release we’ve been waiting on all year.”

“Which is?”

Scott answers again. “Walter Daves’ new book. It’s a psychological thriller, mystery. Great stuff. He’s Seattle’s current best seller.”

“So, what’s the problem? It seems to me if our best selling author sent us a manuscript, we publish it.”

“Exactly my point.”

“With all due respect,” I interject. “I’ve read the manuscript and I don’t think it’s ready for publication.”

“Nothing is ready for publication at this stage,” Scott argues. “It’s why we have editors.”

“Right. But there’s a vast difference in quality of raw material here. I’ve got a manuscript for a new, local author and it’s practically ready to hit the shelves. The story is better, the writing is better, and I really believe it’s going to appeal towards a much wider demographic. It’s the better option.”

“You’re just glazing over a key word here, Anastasia,” Scott says, the irritation in his voice more noticeable now.  “New author. She has no established fan base, no name recognition, nothing. No one is going to buy her book.”

“I didn’t have any of that either, and I’m over a million copies sold.”

“Oh, please. You had name recognition. Your name has been all over every gossip rag and the internet since you started screwing Christian Grey.”

Excuse me?”

“Alright, alright, alright,” Carmen interrupts, and I can tell just by her voice that her patience is wearing thin. “Scott, you’re out of line.”

“I’m sorry, that was crass. But the facts are the facts. She had just as much name recognition as any other socialite, probably more after that whole kidnapping thing that was all over the news. This author she’s trying to push has nothing. Not even on social media. We invest in this title, we may as well close up shop.”

“And I disagree,” I reply through clenched teeth, doing everything in my power to ignore the reminder of what happened last March and how much that actually did play a role in my book deal with HarperCollins. “Daves may give us big pre-order and release day numbers, but that’ll fizzle out quickly once the critics get ahold of it. Hailey Lewis’ novel is a long term investment that is going to ensure the success of this publishing house for years to come.”

Carmen sighs. “Look, I hired the two of you to be my experts, but your advice means next to nothing if you’re contradicting each other. I need you both to work as a team.”

“I agree,” Scott says. “And I’m only sticking to the course we set at the beginning of the fiscal year. Daves is our premier release and deviating from that plan is suicide.”

“And I’m just doing what I was hired to do,” I argue. “I know Daves feels safe, but he’s not. And pushing this title into publication now is going to damage our bottom line and rest of his career.”

“When do we need to make a decision in order to meet our deadlines?” Carmen asks.

Scott snorts. “Last week.”

“Then you have ‘til Wednesday morning. I want you two to find some common ground, pick a title, and move forward. Scott, you’ll let me know before I fly out Wednesday afternoon.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, then I’ll leave you to it. Hunter, my office in fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, Ms. Gallagher.”

There’s a click, and she’s gone. I let my head fall into my hands. “So what are we going to do, Scott?”

“I’m going to tell her we’re moving forward with Daves.”

“I’m not on board with that. Really, I can feel in my gut that going with Daves is a mistake. I know you don’t believe me, but this is a Seattle release, not New York. You have to trust me to run this branch.”

“And I will, once you’ve proven that you can be trusted. Right now, I see no reason to trust you. Right now, I see you arguing with me, with our staff, and going behind my back to Carmen when you don’t get your way. I’ve been in this business for twelve years, I know what I’m doing. I’m lofting you a softball here, honey. Hit it out of the park and we’ll talk about signing new authors.”

“Okay, don’t call me honey. I have a degree from Harvard, I’ve at least earned my own name.”

He sighs. “Fine, you know what? I’ll make you a deal. Convince me that this new title is all you’re building it up to be in the next twenty-four hours and I’ll tell Carmen we’ve decided on Lewis. Otherwise, we’re going with Daves.”

“Fine,” I reply, because I know it’s the best offer I’m going to get with Carmen’s Wednesday deadline. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day, Ana.”

“You too, Scott.” We both say the other’s name with contempt, and hang up the phone without real salutation. I slump back in my chair, feeling the enormous weight of the task in front of me. It’s clear to me why Hailey’s novel is the better choice, I just need to find a way to make Scott see reason. But I’m not going to have any breakthroughs on that front sitting here stewing over it. I need to clear my head.

I get up from the table and leave the conference room, making sure I don’t look as though I’m avoiding eye contact with any of the probing gazes that look up to me. It’s bad enough having to fight Scott to be able to do my job. I don’t need my subordinates to see me crack under pressure.

“Abby, I’m going to take a walk,” I say, approaching reception. She looks up at me and smiles.

“Will I need to push your 01:30?”

“No, I’ll be back soon. Just forward any calls to voicemail, unless it’s family. I want to know once Kate gets home from the hospital.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Woods?” My CPO looks up, then gets out of his seat and follows me through the door. I feel full of anxious energy as we make our way down the elevator, but there’s something about being in the open air that always gives me clarity. It’s one of the reasons I still crave my morning run.

“Where to, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks.

“Just a few blocks. Hang back, okay? I need some space to think.”

“No problem. Just stay in my line of sight. Mr. Grey’s orders.”

I give him a tight smile and nod, then start my way up the sidewalk. My mind races through dozens of possibilities of what I can do, each less likely to be successful than the last. But every time I dismiss an idea, I see Hailey’s face. I hear her voice and how excited she was when I told her she was going to be published. This isn’t just about money, or about my career, this is about a promise I made to a young, talented author. She deserves to be published. She deserves all of the accolades this novel is going to bring to her, and I want to help her get there. It’s the reason I got back into the business, and if I fail her now, I fail myself. I fail everyone. I fail my family for all the hours I’ve spent away from home, I fail the readers who will never get a chance to experience this story, and I fail the next generation of writers that Hailey could inspire. The way I inspired her.

I stop walking and lean against the front façade of a Starbucks. The stone is cold and wet on my exposed arms, but I push past the discomfort and let the worry and stress fall out of my mind.

Think, Anastasia. Think.

But my thoughts are disrupted by a loud boom and the ground shaking beneath my feet. My eyes snap open and I look wildly around, unsure of which direction the sound came from, until I begin to hear screams of horror. I turn and look at the source of the noise, and my gaze slowly creeps up the side of the tall glass building I recognize in an instant.

“No!”

“Mrs. Grey!” Woods calls after me, but I’ve already taken off. The heels I wore this morning to make me feel more confident going into my meeting with Carmen slow me down, so I kick them off and leave them on the sidewalk behind me.

A crowd has formed around the corner from GEH, making it difficult for me to shove my way through. Several people stand there staring, their hands covering their mouths, their faces pale as freshly poured milk. I force my way to the front just as the police cruisers make it onto the scene, and my heart thuds in my chest. The sidewalks around the building are covered in shards and pebbles of glass from the broken windows all around the first floor. Men and women in expensive looking suits pour out of the building, their clothes singed and darkened with dust.

“What happened?” a voice asks behind me.

“I don’t know,” someone else replies. “There was some kind of explosion at the GEH building…”

“Oh my god, it’s terrorists!”

I gasp and push forward again, paying little mind to the glass covered pavement even though I’m barefoot. I’m careful to inspect the faces of each person I see come out of the building, looking for one I recognize, but before I get too close, a hand closes around my arm and pulls me back.

“Miss, I’m going to need you to stay back. It isn’t safe.” It’s a police officer, and instantly, my guard is up. I yank my arm out of his hold.

“My name is Anastasia Grey, this is my husband’s building.”

“That’s nice, lady. But I’m still going to need you to get back.”

“Well, do you know what happened?

“All we know is that there was an explosion on the basement level. Now, step back, ma’am.”

Basement level? That’s what? The parking garage and… the R&D lab. I feel a pain in my chest as I think about Welch and Barney, who I’ve worked closely with several times, but in the same thought, I feel relief. Calliope is on the 7th floor, far away from R&D, and Christian is way up on 30.

“Are you evacuating the whole building?” I ask the officer. He glares down at me.

“Yes, Now, get back!”

“Mrs. Grey.” I turn and see Woods behind me, my shoes in hand. He guides me back to the front of the crowd and I slip my heels back on as I continue watching the people being led out of the building by men in uniform.

The process is slow, and the people come in waves. I know once they get to the 4th floor, because that’s where Grey Publishing is located and I recognize Elizabeth when she emerges from the building. No one in that department looks injured or even scorched the way the initial wave did, so I breathe a little easier. There’s still three floors left to evacuate before they’ll get to Calliope and if the people on four are safe, she should be too.

“Have you seen anyone from R&D?” I ask Woods when the 5th floor wave begins to emerge. He glances through the crowd of people and shakes his head.

“No, ma’am. But if there was an explosion, it might take more to get to them. It could have compromised the integrity of the building and they’re not going to want to shift anything until they’ve evacuated everyone they can.”

I’m hit with another wave of fear. “You think the building could collapse?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I just know they’re going to want to get everyone out before they even survey the damage.”

“Jesus Christ.” Where’s Elliot when you need him?

Several more emergency vehicles pull into the blocked off road between us and the building all at once. More police cruisers, fire trucks, and at least a dozen ambulances. The sight of them makes the knot of dread in my stomach pull tighter. An ambulance means someone has been injured. A fleet of them means that a lot of people were. The one day I didn’t take Calliope to daycare. The one fucking day…  I focus my eyes on the doors, waiting in agony for a face I know.

“Mrs. Grey,” Woods says, urgently. “There’s Mackenzie.”

I turn to the side door, and see a line of people and children coming towards us. Kensie has Calliope in her arms, trying to soothe her as she wails at the top of her lungs, and I feel my heart thud to a stop in my chest.

“Calliope!” The officer holding the line at the front of the crowd has to once again hold me back to keep me from running to her, but the nanny hears my cry and makes a beeline towards us.

“She’s fine,” Kensie says the moment she’s in earshot. “Just scared. It was really loud.”

“Oh, baby…” I take her into my arms and look her over, despite Kensie’s reassurances. My hands brush over every inch of her skin, looking for cuts or bruises, but there’s nothing. She’s perfect. “Shhh, Calliope. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

“Mama. Mamamama…”

“Shhh.” I hug her tightly against me, rocking her back and forth as my eyes turn back to the doors. Now that I know my child is safe, every thought I have shifts to Christian and the twenty three floors that have to be evacuated before emergency crews make it to the executive suite. Normally, I’d think they would try to get the high ranking executives out first, but I also know, if he’s able to, Christian would have issued instructions for emergency crews to get to his employees first. Like a good captain, he’ll be the last to disembark his sinking ship, and that’s what has me so terrified. I glance at the broken windows again, and the solid steel that surrounds them, looking for any sign of weakness.

Please. Please be okay…

It takes over an hour, and the wait is torture. I try calling his cell ten different times, but each time it goes straight to voicemail and that sends a fresh wave of panic through me. Woods tries to reassure me by reminding me that he may have left his phone behind in his haste to get out of the office, or that he’s on the phone with emergency services so he can’t pick up.

None of that makes me feel better.

Finally, I see Ros’ fiery red hair emerge from the building. She turns and waves the rest of the staff through the doors: her assistant, then Andrea, Olivia, a few interns whose faces I recognize but whose names I never learned, and… that’s it. Christian isn’t with them.

“Ros!” I scream. She turns to look at me, her eyes glassy with impending tears, and moves toward me.

“Ana.”

“Where is he? Why isn’t he with you?”

“He wasn’t in his office. He was in a meeting.”

“Oh, thank god. Where?”

She swallows. “He was in the R&D lab.”

 

Chapter 13

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Attention passengers, we’re making our final descent into Seattle. Please make sure your trays are in the upright and locked position, and please remain seated with your seat belt fastened for the remainder of the flight.

 

I look up from the report in my lap and feel a pressure in my chest I hadn’t realized was there release. Christian kissed me goodbye at the airport less than 48 hours ago, but every second I’ve been away from him and Calliope has felt like a day all on its own. He’d worried when I took this job that travelling was going to be hard for me, but having Luke and Calliope with me in Cambridge had given me an overinflated sense of confidence. This weekend has left me exhausted. Not just from the long night at Angela Rowe’s signing celebration, but from the nightmares that made sleeping through the few hours I had available to me impossible.

The plane dips below the clouds, bringing the city and everything that surrounds it into view. I slip my work back into my carry on and stare longingly at the sapphire colored water that I know lies right at the end of my yard. The view conjures memories of Christian and Calliope feeding ducks together, and it makes me smile.

“Glad to be home, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks from the seat next to me.

“Very,” I reply. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“It’s my pleasure, Ma’am.”

Twenty minutes later, we’re on the ground and I hurry Woods along as we deboard the plane and make for the exit. It’s crowded, so getting out of the terminal means weaving through tightly packed groups of tourists and anxious looking businessmen. It slows me down and makes my heart pound with impatient excitement.

When we come through the final doors at the security barrier, I immediately start looking around for Christian, hoping he’ll have Calliope with him. But when I see a face I recognize, it isn’t my husband’s, and my chest deflates with disappointment.

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor greets me. “Woods. How was your flight?”

“Fine, thank you.” I smile in case he picked up on my less than enthused reaction to seeing him there waiting for me, and he takes the bag slung over my shoulder while motioning for both me and my CPO to follow him towards the exit for the parking structure. “Where’s Christian?”

“Home, I’m afraid. He told me he wanted to spend the morning with your daughter before he has to do some work this afternoon.”

“Oh.” My face falls. After losing what little free time we have together to this book party, I was hoping that he’d want to spend the afternoon together. I know how busy he is right now. He told me before they launched this project that it was going to take up a significant amount of his time. But I was home all the time then. Now, time seems so much more precious. I wonder if whatever he’s got scheduled could be pushed to Monday? Would I dare ask? I know how important this is to him…

Once we get to the car, Taylor holds open the door to the backseat for me, then helps Woods load the luggage into the trunk. The traffic is light going through Seattle, so I don’t expect it will take us long to get home, and I use the time I do have on the commute to check the emails I’ve missed since I had to turn my phone off for my flight out of San Francisco. Mostly, it’s just follow up from the party from last night, but sandwiched in between the congratulations and invoices from the different vendors I’d hired, there’s an email from Abby.

 

From: Abigail Kyle

Subject: Focus Group

Date: April 1st 2012  09:18 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Good Morning, Ana!

I just got an email from the people who operate the meeting space where I scheduled your focus group for tomorrow, and they said payment has been denied. I called Mary in accounting and she said corporate didn’t approve it. What do you want me to do?

-Abby

Abigail Kyle

Assistant to Anastasia Grey, Greenwich Small Press

 

My teeth clench together. Of course it wasn’t approved.

My fingers itch to type back that she can just put it on my credit card, but there’s no use in continuing to fight this fight if everything I do is just going to fall on deaf ears. I should just stop and call Carmen, plead my case now before we get any further with The Black Rose and there’s no turning back. But as I click out of my email and start scrolling through my contacts for her number, I get a picture of Christian and what would happen if a department head called his cell phone directly to argue about something he already didn’t approve when he was at home with Calliope and me. They wouldn’t have a job Monday.

Tomorrow then. I’ll call tomorrow and have a calm, rational discussion with Carmen about why we should go with Phoenix. She hired me. That means she must trust my judgment.

The thought’s enough to make me put my phone away, but it’s not enough to quell the irritation boiling inside of me. It shouldn’t be this hard for me to push something through. I was hired to right the ship, but every time I try to set a course Scott drops an anchor. He was the one who pursued me, so I can’t understand why he’s playing these… power struggle games with me.

That’s it, I guess. Power. He wanted me to come on board because he knew I was the best fit, but he’s not ready to let go of the power he’d held when he was the only one in charge. For a few months, Greenwich was entirely his. Now I’m here, and two weeks in I’m already challenging his vision. That’s not something I’m going to apologize for. At the end of the day, my name is going to be on this release, not his, and I’m not going to risk my reputation for his ego. But, it is something I can be cognizant of moving forward. I grew up playing chess with my father, and this is no different. Just moves and countermoves. And while Scott may have experience on his side, I have experience dealing with men who desire power. I might be outgunned at the moment, but I’m not certainly out matched.

The car stops and Taylor rolls down his window to punch the code into the box that opens the gate. We sit there, idling, until the iron bars that protect my home groan open and he can pull into the driveway.

“Welcome home, Ana.”

I look up, meet Taylor’s twinkling eyes in the rear-view mirror, and smile. “Thank you, Taylor. It’s good to be home.”

 

I enter the house through the garage, which was a mistake because it takes me longer to get to the living room than it would have had I asked Taylor to drop me off at the front door. My entire body is itching to get Calliope back into my arms. So, the second I hear the sounds of the foreign language learning videos that Christian insists the baby watch every day, I drop any pretense of patience and bolt to her.

“There she is!” I squeal when I come around the corner and see her sitting on her blanket in the middle of the room, staring up at the cartoons on the TV with complete rapture. She turns her head slowly when she looks over at me, but she doesn’t scream with joy or even smile. Her eyes grow wide with surprise and her mouth rounds out to a perfect little o.

“Mama?”

“Hey, Calli-lily!” I scoop her up, and she reaches out for my hair. Her fingers twist and tug on the ends, almost as though she’s trying to decide whether or not I’m real. Once she’s certain, her eyes meet mine again.

“Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, baby!” I hug her, letting her scent fill my head and wash away days worth of yearning. She clings to me, curling her fingers tightly into my dress while repeating, ‘mama’, over and over again. Kensie is on the couch, smiling up at us, so I turn to her.

“How was your weekend?”

“Great. Easy, actually. Calliope’s an angel and Mr. Grey has been very hands on with her the entire time you’ve been away.” She smiles, like she’s sharing a secret that she shouldn’t. “He slept in the rocking chair in her nursery last night. I woke up in the middle of the night, so I thought I’d check on her, and there he was, fast asleep. If I wasn’t afraid of waking him, I’d have sent you a picture.

“Awh.” My lips pout together and I wrap my arms tighter around my baby and rock her gently back and forth. She yawns and nestles into me, curling up like she wants to fall asleep.

“She was up pretty early, so I think she’s probably ready for a nap,” Kensie says. “We were just finishing up some French lessons and then I was going to put her down.”

“I’ll do it,” I tell her. “Where’s my husband?”

“In his office, I think? He got a call from his assistant over breakfast and I overheard him say something about being booked this afternoon and putting a do not disturb on his email. He disappeared not long after Taylor left to get you.”

I sigh. “Alright, I’ll find him. In the meantime, let’s get you down for a nap, huh?” I look at Calliope and kiss her forehead, speaking with my lips still pressed to her skin. “What do you say, Munchkin?”

“No. Mama.”

I laugh, then wink at Kensie and carry Calliope off to her nursery. She doesn’t want me to let her go, so before I lie her down in her crib I pick a book from the shelf, and sit and read with her in the rocking chair. She fights her eyelids as long as she can, using her fingers in my hair as a distraction to keep her tethered to consciousness. But it’s not long before her eyelashes flutter and she dozes off in my arms.

After lying her down in the crib and taking just a few minutes to stare down at her perfect little face, I venture out in search of my husband. But he isn’t in his office like I expected him to be. He’s not in the gym, or pacing with his phone on the veranda, so I head back up the stairs to check our bedroom.

“Christian?” I call, stepping inside and frowning when I come up empty handed again. The bathroom door is ajar, so I cross the room to check if he’s maybe taking a shower, but stop when I hear the bedroom door close behind me and then several soft footsteps across the carpet. I feel him before he touches me. His warm, masculine scent swirls around me, drawing me to him, heightening every other sense. I shiver when his hands sweep up my bare arms and his face moves into the curve between my neck and shoulder. The gentle kiss of his lips on the sensitive spot below my ear sends a wave of electricity through me, and, instantly, I’m his.

“Welcome home,” he whispers. The deep, need ladened timber reverberating from his chest makes my entire body hum with want. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

His fingers drag up the sides of my arms, all the way up over my shoulders to the zipper at the back of my dress, and the barely there scrape of his neatly trimmed fingernails leaves goose bumps in my skin. As he glides the zipper down my back, his lips move from my neck to kiss every inch of skin he exposes.

“I—I thought you were working this afternoon?”

“Oh, believe me, I plan on doing plenty of work. Right here.” His tongue caresses the skin on my back and I tremble.

“Christian.” My voice comes out in a whisper and desire drips from my lips like warm honey. When the zipper reaches its terminus, his hands slide into my open dress, palms caressing my back as he moves them up my body, widening the gap in the fabric, until the sleeves slip from my shoulders and my entire dress pools around my feet.

“Bed,” he whispers.

I turn in his arms to face him and his mouth comes crashing down on mine. His tongue parts my lips. My fingers curl into his hair. The kiss is soft and deep, slow, and yet filled with a desperate kind of need that has me internally screaming for him push me back onto our bed, rip away my panties, and take me until I’m adequately claimed once again.

He doesn’t though. There is no fiery urgency in the way his hands explore my body or how his tongue tangles with mine. Without his hands ever leaving my skin, he reaches down past my behind to the insides of my thighs and lifts me so that my legs curl around his waist. My hold tightens around his upper body as he carries me across our bedroom, forcing him to come with me once he deposits me onto the bed.

His body consumes me. I’m pinned beneath him at every limb, his weight too much for me to move. But I don’t struggle. I don’t want to be free of his touch.

Reaching over his shoulders, he untangles my arms from around his neck and pins them both down into the mattress at either side of my head, though not to restrain me. With the same gentility he used to touch me at the door, his hands move over my forearms, all the way up, until his fingers can entangle with mine. It’s a simple gesture, intimate but innocent, and it sends a wave of welcome heat down my body, between my legs.

I tilt my hips up, grinding my pelvic bone into his erection in a desperate attempt for friction. He smiles against my lips and presses into me, matching my enthusiasm. “Always so impatient,” he says.

“I need you.”

“Mmm, are you wet?”

“Yes.”

He releases my hand and reaches down my body. My panties are such an insignificant barrier to him, they might as well not be there at all. When his finger slips through my arousal, he groans into my mouth. “So wet…”

I gasp and cling tighter to him, begging for more through my kiss rather than my words, and he obliges. Two long fingers slide into me while his thumb circles my clitoris. The heat intensifies and my eyes roll back. When my mouth drops open in a silent gasp of pleasure, his teeth tug at my bottom lip.

“I have every intention of making love to you, Anastasia,” he says. “But just because I don’t expect you to submit to me doesn’t mean the rules have changed.”

“What rules?”

“You know which rules.” He pushes his fingers as deep inside of me as he can reach, curling them around to stroke the place that has my toes digging into the sheets. “Say it.”

“I-I…” I bite down on my lip and force myself to swallow my panting breaths so I can get the words out. “I only come for your mouth or your cock.”

“And I intend for you to do both.”

I whimper and clench around his fingers, desperate to stave off the orgasm he seems just as eager to coax out of me. I pant his name, claw at his arms, and, mercifully, just as I’m about to lose the battle and fall over the ledge, his hand disappears. The emptiness left behind is both a relief and unbelievably torturous. But he takes pity on me.

With one last kiss against my lips, he moves down my body. While he pauses to suckle softly on each of my nipples, I reach down, dig my fingers into his shirt, and pull it up over his head. He lifts himself enough for the fabric to be removed, then drags the tip of his tongue through my cleavage, down the middle of my stomach, over my hip bone, and across my thigh. I clench again, electrified by only his eyes and the focus with which he stares at his prize between my legs. I want to thread my fingers through his hair, grip at the roots until his mouth falls open with pain and pleasure, and then guide him into me. But I resist. I let him stare. I let him plan. And after a few agonizing seconds of waiting, I’m rewarded with his tongue.

“Oh, fuck. Christian!” Once his name crosses my lips, he begins to suck softly on my clitoris then drags the resulting inundation of my arousal up and round that sensitive bundle of nerves with the flat of his tongue. A pattern starts to develop, three flicks, swirl, long lick. Flick. Swirl. Lick. Flick. Swirl. Lick. My back arches off the bed, my mouth drops open, my eyes close. The wick to my release has been lit, and when he begins to suck again, I fill his mouth with fireworks.

“Christian!”

He growls and uses his lips and tongue to work me through my orgasm, dragging it out, drowning me in it until I’m reduced to nothing but a quaking, breathless mess. When I come down and the world comes into focus again, he leaves a final kiss against me and then drags himself up my body again. The tip of his erection plays against my still quaking opening.

“I could watch you come all day, Anastasia.”

“I’m inclined to let you.”

He flashes me that mischievous smile I always feel in the deepest, most secret parts of me. “Good.”

In one smooth motion, he thrusts inside of me and takes my resulting cry of pleasure into his mouth. His tongue dances with mine in synchrony with his movements inside of me, slow and controlled, but filled with love and promise. I hook my leg around his hips, desperate to be closer to him despite the fact that his thrusts push him as deep inside of me as humanly possible. The blunt end of him tests my boundaries while his hands cradle my face with a gentility that I wouldn’t normally expect from him during sex. It’s a silent but powerful gesture. He missed me. He’s glad I’m home. And, he loves me.

“Oh, Ana…” he groans. The sound of my name reverberates against my lips until he kisses me again, and I can’t tell which gives me more pleasure. The reverence in his voice is religious in it’s devotion, yet it’s a pale imitation of the depth of feeling I have for him. For this connection. For the piece of himself he’s given me, and only me. I pull away from the kiss so I can look into his eyes, and when I do his face twists with an intense emotion I can’t read.

“Give me your hand,” he says. I do, and he brings each of my fingertips to his lips before pulling my hand down between my legs. At first, I think he wants me to touch myself. But he lays my hand flat over my pubic bone, my index and middle fingers bookends to the connection between our bodies. “Feel me. Feel the way we move together.”

“Ah…” Even the sharp intake of breath I take shakes. It’s too much to contain. The pleasure, his adoration, the depth of feeling his love making brings out of me. I’m overwhelmed, and the burden of those feelings coil inside of me, tighter and tighter, until everything disintegrates.

My orgasm doesn’t hit me with the force of a supernova the way the first one did. It’s more like a breath of wind spreading flames across the dry foliage of the forest floor. The hot flames of pleasure creep slowly through my entire body, but with enough potency to burn me down to the bone. I feel him everywhere. From the tips of my fingers to the ends of my toes, I writhe with pleasure so intense I’m baffled by my own body’s ability to contain it.

“Oh, fuck!” Christian grunts through clenched teeth. His eyes close, and his expression twists with determination as he struggles to keep his own release at bay long enough to see me through the highest peak of mine. One long sustained note escapes my chest, raising higher and higher in pitch until it’s silent and then… “Ana!”

He pushes as deep into me as he can, then stills. His erection is so swollen that I can feel him pulse with every drip he releases inside of me. I welcome it. I want it. In that moment, lost in the heat of orgasm, I reject every part of my existence that doesn’t exist solely for his pleasure.

Our breathing is synchronized as we come down, and we’re both covered in a thin sheen of sweat. Every part of my body is overcome with a feeling of relaxation so deep, I can’t move. He kisses me deeply, then rolls over and collapses on the bed at my side, his chest heaving with every breath he takes. We lay there in silence for what is probably only a minute or so, though it feels much longer, and then he turns to look at me.

“You’re incredible, you know that?”

I let my head loll to the side and blink at him. “I’m sorry, who are you?” It takes half a second, but his face breaks into a smile and we both laugh until, somehow, we’re kissing again. He leans up on his arms and brushes the backs of his fingers over my cheeks while our lips play softly against each other. When we part, he smiles and looks down at me with the same love I felt a few minutes ago swimming in his eyes.

“How was your trip?”

“It was fine.”

His brow furrows. “Fine? You hosted a party that the San Francisco Chronicle was raving about this morning. It had to have been better than fine.”

I want to roll my eyes. Of course he’s already read all the press. “No, the party was good. There’s a lot of enthusiasm surrounding this release right now and I’m excited to see how that translates to sales.”

“But?”

“Corporate killed my focus group, and I think Scott is probably behind it.”

Christian snorts. “How fragile does a man’s ego have to be to be so threatened by the success of a colleague at an entirely separate branch all the way across the country?”

“I think it’s more about control. He ran GSP unchecked for months, and now here I am, refusing to just give in to what he wants on the first big release I’ve been given.” I sigh. “Anyway, I’m going to call Carmen on Monday and try to talk her over to my side. You know her, right?”

He shrugs, and I turn so that I’m facing him better.

“What do I need to do to convince her?”

“Oh, no. You’re the competition now. Any advice I give you would be in direct opposition to the interests of my own publishing company. You’re on your own, Mrs. Grey.”

“Shouldn’t there be some kind of loophole where you ignore the whole competition thing and give me advice because I’m your wife and you love me and you want me to succeed?”

He smiles. “I do love you. And I’d give you all the advice you could handle if you wanted to leave and come work for me.”

“I can’t come work for you. I signed a non-compete.”

“Oh, please. I’ll put my lawyers up against Carmen Gallagher’s any day. You want to come to GP, just say the word and it’s yours.”

“No, thank you.”

“Then my lips are sealed.”

“Oh really?” I lean up and kiss him again, coaxing his lips apart with my tongue so I can deepen the kiss. He moans and lovingly runs his fingers through my hair again. When we part, I place one last, sweet peck against his lips for good measure. “How about now?”

“Mmm… no dice.”

“Christian!”

He laughs, but turns away from me to pick up his phone, vibrating on the floor next to the bed. I only just get a glance of Kate’s name displayed across the screen before he answers.

“Kate?” He pauses, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. I can only judge the tone of the call by his face, and his expression goes from curious to worry in a split second. “Yeah, she just got home. What’s wrong?”

“Wrong?” I breathe, but he holds a hand up to silence me so that he can hear what she’s saying.

“Where’s Elliot? Fuck. Okay, don’t move. We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He hangs up the phone and leaps out of bed, picking up his clothes and throwing them on as he moves quickly for our bedroom door.

“What’s going on?” I ask, panic rising in my chest.

“Kate’s in labor, and Elliot’s on a job site in Tacoma. We need to pick her up and take her to the hospital.”

“Labor? Oh my god, she’s having her baby!” My smile widens with each word, and despite his hurry, he smiles back at me.

“Yeah. Now get dressed. I’ll get Calliope and meet you at the car.”

I nod quickly and scurry out of bed. The dress I wore on the plane this morning is all business and only looks good with a sky high pair of heels, not something I want wear sitting in a waiting room all day, so I go to the closet, find one of Christian’s t-shirts and a pair of leggings. My hair is a dead give away that I’ve just been fucked within an inch of my life, but there isn’t any time to do anything about it. I sweep it up in a messy bun on top of my head, spritz myself with perfume to mask the smell of Christian and sex, and bolt to the door.

He’s already in the garage by the time I get downstairs, buckling Calliope into her car seat while dismissing Kensie until Monday. Taylor is in the driver’s seat, the engine of the SUV purring gently, so I give our nanny a grateful smile and jump into the backseat.

“Where to, Mr. Grey?” Taylor asks.

“Escala, and hurry.”

Taylor nods and begins to back out of the garage, and I feel like someone just dropped a 100 lb weight in my lap. I hadn’t considered where Kate was, only that I needed to get to her as quickly as possible. Her movers are scheduled for 8 AM tomorrow morning, of course she goes into labor today.

“You alright?” Christian asks, reaching over to grasp my hand. I turn and stare back at him, forcing the fear clutching my windpipe down so that my voice won’t betray me.

“Of course I am. Kate’s having her baby today.”

He gives me a small but warm smile, then reaches into the car seat and brushes his hand lovingly through Calliope’s curls, and once again, I get away with it.

Dread builds inside me the entire drive into downtown, like a rock that’s fallen into the pit of my stomach. I try to alleviate my anxiety by telling myself this drive is no different than the commute I take into work every morning. But any comfort I’m able to find in the lie comes and goes as quickly as it takes for us to pass the GSP building. Only two blocks, and then Taylor signals for the drive to the parking garage below Escala.

For some reason, the small box that contains the sensor for the initial gate is still in the dash of the SUV, so Taylor doesn’t stop to punch in a code before the gate swings open. I have no moment to brace myself before we descend into the dark garage, and the moment the muted light streaming in through the window at my side is obstructed, I feel a wave of cold. There’s a pillar not far from the lane that leads us to the elevator, is that where Kommer was hiding, waiting for us to return that night? Is this where Luke was first pulled out of this very car at gunpoint? My mind is filled with these kinds of questions and when we stop, and I reach for the handle on the door, I say a silent prayer that Christian doesn’t notice my fingers shaking.

“You don’t have to come up,” he says. “You can wait here with Calliope.”

I swallow, both my mind and heart racing. Kate is upstairs, scared and alone. I should go to her. I need to go to her. But the very sight of the elevator, the thought of punching in the code to the penthouse, the image of watching each number tick higher as we rise up to the place where it happened… it all has me frozen, unable to move.

I look back at Christian and nod. “Hurry.”

“I will.” He opens the door and disappears from the safe confines of our car. I watch every step he takes to the elevator and then hold my breath as he steps inside, fighting every instinct that tells me to call him back. Once the doors close and he’s out of my sight, I force my mind to go blank, place my hand over my daughter in her car seat, and focus on Taylor. The piece that was missing last time.

“Three minutes, Mrs. Grey,” he says, making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror. “That’s as long as it takes.”

I nod, let my head fall back against the headrest, and close my eyes.

One. Two. Three. Four…

I get all the way to one hundred eighty-nine when the faint ding of the elevator arriving catches my attention. My eyes snap open and I look up at a scene that I had imagined a hundred times last year, only with myself in the place currently being occupied by my best friend. Christian has a small, pink gym bag slung over his shoulder, one arm around Kate’s waist, and one hand clutched in hers so that she has something to hold and steady herself. Her face is contorted with pain and worry. Her lips are pursed with the release of a long breath, and her free arm carefully cradles her baby bump. They stop as Kate half doubles over with the pain of a contraction, and while I can’t hear the words, I can see Christian lean down and say something to her that makes her nod and encourages her to continue on to the car. It should make me happy to see him supporting her the way he is, it does make me happy. But watching them makes me think of Calliope’s birth, the experience I missed because of my abruption, and I view him leading Kate towards me through the green tinge of envy.

Stop it, Ana.

When they’re only a few feet away, I get out of the car and take Kate’s hands. She’s panting, and I can see in her eyes that she’s scared. Nodding for Christian to put her bag in the back while I lead her into the backseat, I put an arm around her and try to sooth her with my voice as best as possible.

“Easy, Katie. We’ve got you. We’re going to the hospital now.”

“E-Elliot,” she pants. “Sh-she can’t be born before Elliot gets here.”

“I’ll call him,” Christian says. “Find out where he is.” Kate nods, but none of the uneasiness leaves her eyes. I slide into the back seat next to her, and take her hand.

“He’s coming, Kate. He’s going to make it. Just breathe with me.”

Thankfully, Kate acted as my partner in Christian’s absence through countless Lamaze classes the year before, so it isn’t weird coaching her to breath through the entire drive to Northwest Hospital. She clutches my hand so tightly that I can’t feel most of it after a few minutes, and the very tips of my fingers turn deep red, almost purple, in color. But I can tell how much it helps her, knowing I’m there, so I let her squeeze me as much as she needs to for the entirety of the ride.

“We’re here,” I encourage her once the SUV stops in front of the sliding glass doors at the Emergency Room entrance. Christian jumps out of the front passenger seat and opens our door, somehow managing to get her bag from the trunk and still make it back to us in time to hold most of her weight as she carefully steps out onto the asphalt. A man in light blue scrubs rushes towards us, pushing a wheelchair in front of him, and I once again let her clutch my hand while Christian helps lower her down into it.

“Where is he now?” she asks, looking at Christian with desperate eyes.

“He just texted me. There’s an accident on I-5, but he’s gotten around to 167 at Federal Way. He’s coming, Kate. He’ll make it.”

“But if he…” she shakes her head, deciding against whatever it was she was going to say, and looks up at me. “Don’t leave me, Ana.”

“I won’t, Kate. I’m right here.”

She nods again, furiously, like she’s trying to convince herself of something, and the nurse pushes her forward into the ER. They take us straight up to the maternity floor and while Kate and I are shown back to the private birthing suite they booked months ago, Christian is handed a clipboard to fill out her information and tasked with sitting with Calliope in the waiting room and calling both her and Elliot’s parents.

“Breathe, Katie,” I say, looking up at the clock on the wall and trying to calculate how much time is left until I think Elliot is going to arrive. She screams again, through another powerful contraction, and I think I see her involuntarily pushing. Shit… should she be? “You’re doing great, Kate. Keep breathing.” I drop her hand and run to the door, scream for the nurse, and return to her side until, finally, someone comes to examine her.

“Drugs!” she cries the moment the doctor comes into the room. “I want the drugs, give me the drugs.”

“We’ll see what we can do, Mrs. Grey. Let me just get a look here and see where we’re at.” I stand to the side, keeping her fingers interlaced with mine, as he helps her get her leg into the stirrups and dives between her legs. She screams again, pushes again, and the doctor sits up straight. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey, it looks like we’re past the point of an epidural. You’re fully dilated, this baby is coming.”

“What?” she pants. “I-I’ve only been in labor for a little over an ho—OWE!” Another scream, another push.

“I know it’s fast,” the doctor says, scooting closer to the end of the table. “But this is good. You’ll be grateful for a quick labor come tomorrow. Patricia!”

“No, my husband’s not here yet. Ana, she can’t be born before Elliot gets here…”

“I know, he’s coming.”

A nurse scurries into the room with a tray on a cart and quickly dresses the doctor in a plastic gown, mask, and gloves.

“No.” Kate shakes her head defiantly. “No, I’m not going to do this until he’s here. I ca—AAH!” Her fingers crush my hand and I shoot a worried look down at the doctor.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” he says. “We can’t wait. You’re going to need to start pushing.”

“No. No, I won’t.”

“It’s not an option. I need you to push for me, okay? In three, two…”

She lets out a distraught sounding sob. “Ana.”

I squeeze her hand, holding her just as tightly as she holds me. “I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. Now push, Katie. Push!”

The imploring look she gives me gives way to agony in an instant and the room fills with the sound of her pain as she gives her first real push. This is happening, just like that. She’s not just in labor, she’s giving birth, and I’m the only one here with her.”

“Good, Katie,” I tell her as her muscles relax. “You’re doing so good.”

Tears swim in her eyes. “I don’t want to do this, Ana. Not yet. I need more time.”

“We don’t have time. She’s coming, ready or not. But Elliot is going to be here any second and I’m going to get you through this until he comes through that door. You’ve got this, Kate. You can do this.”

“I-I—“

“Here we go,” the doctor interrupts. “Big push now, Mrs. Grey. In 3, 2, 1…” She screams once more, and as the sound reverberates off the walls of the tiny room, the door bursts open and Elliot steps inside, looking frantic.

“Elliot!” Kate pants.

He rushes to her side, takes her free hand in his, and brings her fingers to her lips. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m sorry. Are we doing this?”

I nod. “She’s coming. That was her second push.”

“Good. You’re doing so good, baby. I love you so much.”

I sigh in relief and move to slip my hand out of Kate’s, but the moment she feels movement, she tightens her hold around me. “No, don’t go!”

“Okay,” I nod, stepping right back up to the side of the bed. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“One more time, Mrs. Grey,” the doctor instructs her. “Big push on 3, 2, 1…”

After her first ten pushes or so, her forehead is coated with sweat, so I wet a towel in the metal sink against the far wall and dab it against her skin. Elliot coaches her perfectly, offering her encouragement when she needs it, and praise once she’s made it through a particularly rough contraction. I can see the exhaustion on her face, but when her eyes meet with Elliot’s, somehow, she finds the strength to keep going.

“Excellent job, Mrs. Grey,” the doctor says. “I can see her head.”

“You can?” She turns wild-eyed to Elliot. “Can you see her?”

He looks between her legs. “Holy shit, there she is. That’s her head!”

“I want to see,” Kate cries. The nurse standing behind the doctor picks up a mirror from her tray and places it between Kate’s legs, but just as she’s about to sit up, she’s hit with another contraction. A tear leaks over her lower lid as the pain once again becomes clear on her face. It’s hard, seeing her like this. Every scream of pain seems to make my chest tighten, like I’m being crushed by a boa constrictor. And it goes on, and on. For all the urgency with which this birth began, I’m surprised by how long it takes for the baby to actually make her grand debut. I always thought waiting was just about dilating, but Kate pushes for over an hour before her little girl really starts to emerge.

I watch her head appear, then her shoulders, and, after a few more pushes, the doctor invites Elliot to take the baby in his hands and he pulls her the rest of the way from Kate’s body. Then it’s over. Just like that. Kate collapses back onto the bed, panting as though she’s just run a marathon, and the doctor holds her daughter up for Elliot to cut the cord.

“Give her to me,” Kate says. “Give her to me.”

Without even cleaning her off, the doctor slides the baby into Elliot’s arms and he carries her over to Kate.

“Here she is,” he says.

She smiles and holds out her arms. “Kennedy.”

“Kennedy?” I look between them, brow furrowed, and Elliot smiles.

“Yeah.”

“That’s beautiful. Does she have a middle name?”

“Kavanagh,” he answers, since Kate is too busy marveling at her brand new daughter’s face. “We’re all Trevelyan Grey, me, Christian, and Mia. So, we thought we’d carry on the tradition.”

“Kennedy Kavanagh Grey,” I repeat, my grin growing wider. “I love it. Congratulations. She’s so beautiful.”

“Thanks, Ana,” Elliot says, but Kate ignores me. She ignores Elliot. She ignores the doctor and the nurse. She only has eyes for Kennedy, and I have never in the nearly fifteen years that she’s been my best friend, seen her look any happier.

Next Chapter

Chapter 12

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After months of the ever present blanket of clouds and rain, spring makes its first grand appearance the Saturday after my first week of work. The sun is warm in the clear sky, there’s a gentle breeze that blows off the lake behind our house, and the air is filled with the sweet scent of blooming flowers and freshly mown grass. It’s the kind of day that demands your attention. So, after Christian finishes a phone call with Ros and I’ve cleaned away our breakfast, I call the family, pack up a picnic lunch and a blanket, and take the baby to play in our, so far unused, park sized backyard.

It’s the perfect day. Christian is undistracted, Calliope’s face is alight with joy, and for the first time all week, I’m able to forget about the unread submissions continually trickling into my inbox. There’s nothing but warm weather and plastic wands for blowing bubbles.

“Mine! Mine!” Calliope complains when Christian takes the wand back to dip into the soapy liquid. It’s the newest word she’s picked up at daycare, most likely because she’s been forced to share toys for the first time in her life, and I’m not the biggest fan.

“Please,” I correct her, but she only blinks at me before turning back to Christian and holding out her hands for the wand again. He laughs, then passes it back to her, and as she blows raspberries at the iridescent liquid inside the loop, I glare at him.

“What?”

“You can’t reward her for bad behavior. She doesn’t get to demand things. If she wants something, she can ask politely for it.”

He looks appalled. “My daughter doesn’t need to ask permission to take what’s hers. We should be encouraging her to stand up for herself. It’s exactly this kind of tenacity and sense of self worth that will make her into a world leader one day.”

“Or you’ll turn her into a spoiled brat.”

“Brat? No, not my sweet little Calliope. Look at this face. Does this look like a brat to you?” He turns her around so that she’s looking up at me and while I watch her attempt to blow bubbles in the same way she leaves kisses on my cheek, I can’t help but melt under her wide eyed gaze.

“See,” Christian says, gloating. I wrinkle my nose at him.

“This is no way an approval of your behavior,” I tell him. “She’s just so cute.” I lean forward to tickle her tummy and when she starts to giggle, I scoop her into my lap and kiss every part of her face that I can reach. Christian smiles at the both of us, but is distracted as he pulls out his phone by a series of booming barks coming from the house. In the next second, Champ comes barreling down the yard towards us and I’m only just able to move Calliope out of the way before he’s on top of me, pinning my shoulders down to the ground with his massive paws while he covers my face in slobber.

“Champ!” Elliot yells, running down to pull him off of me, but Christian gets there first. He pulls the dog back off the blanket from us, but it doesn’t stop him from struggling to get back to me. I laugh, check to make sure Calliope wasn’t scared, and then scoot forward to scratch his flat head and wrinkly lips.

“Hey, Champ! Oh, I missed you!”

“The dog?” Christian asks, raising an eyebrow at his brother. “You brought the dog?”

Elliot shrugs. “He’s been cooped up in that apartment for months. It’s a nice day, Kate wanted to bring him so that he could get some exercise.”

“So take him to a dog park.”

“Okay,” Elliot laughs. “You go say that to my eight month pregnant wife. See how that works out for you.”

“Where is Kate?” I ask, but, in response, Elliot just turns towards the house. I follow his gaze and see Kate waddling carefully over the sloping grass towards us, holding her round tummy as if she’s afraid not supporting its weight will send her tumbling down the lawn.

“Babe, wait,” Elliot calls. He rushes towards her but she holds a hand out towards him in defiance.

“I don’t need your help, I can walk thirty feet.”

“I don’t want you fall.” He reaches out to take her arm, but she yanks it out of his hold.

“I’m pregnant, Elliot. Not an invalid.”

“Fine.” He holds his hands up in surrender and backs a few feet away. Kate’s mouth sets in prideful determination, but after taking a few steps down hill, she starts to lose her balance. Elliot crosses his arms over his chest and grins.

“Need some help?”

“No.” Her stubbornness is actually quite impressive. I almost wonder if she’s going to stay stranded in that one place all afternoon in order to make her point that she doesn’t need Elliot to help her, but she turns pleading eyes towards me. “Ana…”

With a laugh, I get up and take the hands she reaches out for me, then slowly guide her down to our blanket. She does let Elliot hold most of her weight as she lowers herself onto the ground, but once she’s settled in, she quickly brushes him away.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Alright.” He takes a few steps back. “Do you want anything?”

“Elliot… You’re hovering.”

“Fine.” He begins to dig in the bag they brought along with them and pulls out a bright orange braided rope. Champ, who’s collar is still clutched in Christian’s hand, immediately freezes and focuses every ounce of his attention on it. Elliot swings the toy back and forth, chuckling slightly as Champ follows it with his entire head, and the throws it as far as he can towards the water. Champ takes off like a bolt of lightning and we all watch as he seeks it out, plays with it for roughly two seconds, then brings it back.

“Good boy,” Kate says, when he drops the toy in front of Elliot. As he picks it up and once again throws it as far as he can, she turns to me and sighs, looking as though she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders… or maybe in her uterus.

“You look like you’re ready for the baby to come,” I tell her.

“Oh my god, Ana. I swear, I can’t do three more weeks of this. I’m swollen everywhere. I haven’t seen my feet in weeks, I’m exhausted, cranky, starving all of the time, and I’ve got such bad pregnancy brain that I can’t focus on anything at work. It takes me three times as long to do every single task as it normally would.”

“Well, when do you go on maternity leave?”

“Right now,” Elliot says, emphatically, looking sternly over at her as though this is a fight they’ve had before and he’s ready to launch on the defensive again. “Her last day was Friday.”

“It most certainly was not,” Kate argues. “I’m not just going to sit around the apartment twiddling my thumbs for three weeks when I’m perfectly capable of going to work.”

“You’re not though. You are very pregnant, Kate. You need to slow down and take it easy. You’re done with work for the next twelve weeks.”

“No, I’m not.” Her lips thin together as she struggles to restrain her irritation, and Elliot turns imploring eyes on me.

“Ana, a little help here?”

“He’s right, Katie. You really should take the time you have left to relax and get ready for the baby. Aren’t you about to move into your new house? You could set up the nursery.”

“Oh don’t even get me started on the damn house,” Elliot says, throwing the toy again. His frustration propels the rope farther, sending it crashing into the lake, which Champ jumps into without a second thought.

“What’s wrong with the house?” Christian asks.

“Nothing,” Elliot replies. “Absolutely nothing. I’ve spent the better part of a year building and renovating it to be exactly what she wants, and now she wants to sell it.”

“What? Why do you want to sell it?” I ask.

Kate shrugs. “I was thinking we might talk to Christian about buying Escala.”

“But I thought you loved your new house.”

“I do. I really do. But Escala has a lot of advantages that moving to Medina wouldn’t. Now that Grace and Carrick are basically living full time in the downtown apartment, they’re practically our neighbors and I’d like to have them close when the baby comes. We’ve got doormen and a maintenance staff. The location is really great…”

“It’s closer to her work,” Elliot says emphatically. “She wants to stay because it’s closer to work.”

“That’s not a bad thing, Elliot. It’s closer to your work too, you know.”

“It’s a penthouse apartment in a 31 story building smack dab in the middle of the city. What about that says ‘family home’ to you?”

“A lot of kids grow up in the city.”

“Not our kids. Our kids are going to have a yard to play in and curb for a lemonade stand. I’m not going to have them walking past junkies shooting up in alleys or trekking through homeless camps on their way to school.”

“Dad’s going to fix that,” Christian interrupts. “Remember?”

“Yeah, uh huh.” Elliot rolls his eyes. “So was the last mayor.”

“Where are your parents, anyway?” Kate asks, looking around the yard like she’s going to find Grace or Carrick hiding behind a tree.

“Mom’s on call,” Christian replies. “She was at the hospital when Ana invited her.”

“What about Carrick?”

Christian frowns and Elliot shakes his head. “He and Christian are fighting.”

“We’re not fighting,” Christian says. “We’re having a professional disagreement that he’s brought into our personal lives.”

“Yeah, because it’s stopping him from doing anything else. You know the city council told him that they’re not going to approve his appointments until the budget is finalized? And he can’t finalize the budget while you’re pushing this whole tax cuts for billionaires thing.”

“Wait, appointments?” I ask. “Like… police chief?”

“Yep,” Elliot says.

“Well, then he should stop fighting me,” Christian says. “I’m not asking for that much. And if this project takes off, I’ll be providing more jobs for this city than Microsoft and Amazon combined.”

“And if it doesn’t, he’ll be the mayor that got elected and immediately gave his own son millions of dollars in tax cuts for no reason.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not going to fail.”

“You can’t do what you want to do, Christian! You’re chasing the impossible. As in, against the laws of physics impossible. Dad isn’t going to give you what you want.”

“Then I’ll have to take it.”

Elliot lets out an exasperated sigh. “I swear to god, you two are exactly the same person. Two rams beating their heads against each other trying to get the upper hand, when in reality you’re both just giving yourself brain damage.”

Champ returns again, but before Elliot can whip his toy back out towards the lake, Calliope crawls across the blanket and reaches up for it. “Mine!”

The irritation on Elliot’s face immediately disappears as he looks down at her tiny fingers clutching the air over and over again in her attempt to reach up to an impossible height and take the tug rope from him. He frowns, obviously wanting to give her what she’s asking for but knowing it’s not a great idea to let a ten month old little girl take a toy that the 120 lb Bull Mastiff ten feet away is dying to for.

“I don’t know, Calliope. Champ might get you and you’d get hurt.”

She’s undeterred. “Mine!”

“No, Callie baby. I’m sorry.”

Her face contorts with an impending temper tantrum, but before she burst into tears, she looks over at Christian, her hands still stretched high above her head, and in a shaking voice says, “Mine, Dada.”

Christian moves across the blanket, lifts her up onto her feet, and crouches down behind her. His arms wrap protectively her waist so that he can snatch her up out of reach in an instant if he has to, and then he holds out his hand for the rope.

“No, Christian,” I say, dread gripping my stomach.

“I’ve got her, Ana.” His assurances aren’t enough to make me stop clenching my teeth in fear, but when he turns around again, Elliot hands the toy over to him. I cringe as Champ’s eyes follow the bright orange rope into Calliope’s hand, like beacon, and he begins to bounce with excitement in front of her.

“Alright, Princess,” Christian coaches her. “Pull it back like this and… throw!” He guides her hand back and then helps her snap it forward, but she forgets the part where you’re supposed to let go. Champ takes off, but very quickly realizes there’s nothing to chase, so he trots back and starts to whine.

“Try again,” Christian continues. He goes through the motions with her three more times, but only when he tells her exactly when to let go does she succeed in throwing the toy for the dog. It only travels about a foot away from her, so Champ has to run towards her to pick it up instead of away, but she screams with joy when the dog lays the rope at her feet and then lays patiently down in the grass for her to throw it again.

“Real hard this time,” Christian says on her fifth successful throw. “One, two, three!” With all of her strength she manages to toss the rope another four or five inches, but this time when Champ brings it back to her, he doesn’t step back and wait to retrieve it again. He barrels forward into her and Christian, knocking them back slightly, and starts licking her face from chin to forehead. Christian immediately pulls her up out of the dog’s reach, but she doesn’t look scared or start to cry. In fact, she’s more upset that Christian’s keeping her from reaching Champ.

“No, Dada! No!”

“Let me see her,” Elliot says, but Christian is wary when he looks down at his outstretched hands. Elliot rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to let her get hurt. Champ listens to me better than he listens to you.”

Reluctantly, Christian passes Calliope off and Elliot swings her up into the air before grabbing onto Champs collar and lowering her down so she can pet him.

“Gentle now,” I warn her, nervous to have her so close. It’s not that I think Champ is going to attack her, he’s just so much bigger than she is that he could hurt her on accident. She looks over at me with wide eyes, but Elliot quickly gets her attention again and shows her how to gently stroke her hands across the dog’s fur. The look on her face is that of pure wonder and after a few seconds, Champ’s eyes close and he lays down on the blanket at her feet. Calliope giggles, then falls to her knees and crawls over to him, wrapping her arms around his back in the biggest hug she can manage.

“Whew,” Kate says. “Well, he’s good with kids. That’s a relief.”

Elliot smiles. “Look at her. You’re going to have to get a dog, Christian.”

“Why? I’ve got yours.” He flashes his brother a grin, then pulls out his phone to take a picture of Calliope cuddling with Champ. I peak over his shoulder to see the photo he got, and my heart instantly melts.

For the rest of the afternoon, Christian, Elliot, and I take turns running around with Calliope and Champ, who seem to have a superhuman level of energy to burn. When Champ finally needs to come lay down for a break, Christian walks Calliope down to the lake, where two ducks swim in the shallows around our dock with their brand new baby ducklings. I send Elliot down with some of the bread from our picnic, then grin as I listen to Kate’s euphoric excitement over the impending arrival of her baby girl and watch my own daughter tossing breadcrumbs into the water with her father. When they run out of bread and the ducks swim away, Christian brings her back to me, and she sits on his hip making weird, throaty sounds at him, almost like the crackle of a broken radio.

“What is she doing?” I ask when he sets her on the ground next to a snoozing Champ. He plops down on the blanket next to me and grins.

“Callie, what does a duck say?”

She turns to him and begins making the sound again, and I laugh.

“Almost.”

Christian’s arms wrap around me and he slowly pulls me down onto the blanket. His fingers brush loose tendrils of my hair from my face and then he leans down and presses his lips into mine. I moan and wrap my arms around his neck, but when he begins to nibble on my bottom lip and his hand moves higher up my thigh, I quickly pull away.

“Watch your hands there, Mr. Grey,” I scold him.

His eyes twinkle and his lips stretch into a devious kind of smile. “These hands?”

Before I can squirm away, his fingers clamp down on my sides, moving just enough to make me kick and flail to get away from him, but not enough to give me any leeway to escape.

“Stop!” I scream through my raucous laughter, but of course he doesn’t.

“What was that? What did you want me to do?”

“Stop!” I call again. “Oh my god, I hate you! Stop!” My cheeks start to burn from smiling too broadly and I desperately try to catch my breath. For a moment, I almost break free of his hold, but he pulls me right back into him and his tickles become more insistent. I roll away, laughing and struggling for air. “No! No!”

“No, Dada!”

He stops and turns to see our little girl standing on wobbly legs a few inches away, but holding out one finger as sternly as she’s currently looking down at him.

“I can’t tickle, Mommy?”

“No!”

His face falls. “Alright. Then, I guess I’ll just… have to tickle you!” He launches at her, gently pushing her back on to the blanket and then attacking her with his fingers. She screams and starts to giggle, but while I sit up and look happily at the two of them, Champ comes barreling over the top of them, barking loudly as he knocks Christian off the baby and pins him into the grass, snarling. Elliot nearly falls over with laughter, but manages to compose himself just enough to pull the dog away from my husband.

“Good boy, Champ!” he says in praise. Christian glares.

“Mr. Grey?”

We all turn and see Taylor standing a few feet away, looking slightly uncomfortable to be interrupting us. Christian quickly gets to his feet, brushing away the grass from his clothes.

“Taylor?”

“A package just arrived. I think it’s urgent.”

“Really? I’ll take it in my office.”

“Oh… it’s not for you. It’s for Mrs. Grey, sir.”

Christian turns around and looks down at me, his eyebrow furrowed in confusion. “You’re expecting something urgent?”

I sigh. “It’s probably Walter Daves’ finished manuscript. He’s GSP’s biggest author and we’re depending on his sales to get us through the rest of the fiscal year. Scott was supposed to send it on Friday but, Saturday is good too I guess.” I roll my eyes.

“So, no miracle yet?” Kate asks. I shake my head.

“I’ve actually signed off on a lot of really great pieces. We’ve got a really strong catalogue of non-fiction titles, but unless it’s a celebrity autobiography, that’s not a genre that really produces big dollar sales. Walter Daves’ last series put up impressive numbers, so I’m hoping this novel does at least as well as his last. We really need him to help us make up a big deficit in the fiction department.”

“Well, I guess we’ll leave you to it then.” She reaches out for Elliot’s hands so he can help her to her feet, and then holds out her arms to hug me good-bye.

“You’ll let us know if you need help moving?” I ask her.

“Yeah, but I don’t think we will. Elliot’s working the next two weekends so he can get caught up on everything before taking a few weeks off for the baby. We hired movers.”

“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do. Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, we had a lot of fun.”

“Us too.”

I smile, then pass her off to Christian while I accept a hug goodbye from Elliot. Calliope reaches up for me, so I scoop her into my arms and carry her to the entryway where we see Kate and Elliot off, but by the time we’ve closed the door behind them, her eyelids are drooping so badly, it looks as though she can barely keep them open.

“I think someone needs a nap,” I tell Christian.

“I’ll take her. Apparently, you have work to do.”

“Thank you. I’ll be in my office.” He pulls the baby from my arms into his, and I rise up onto my toes to kiss him before he carries her upstairs to her room. A small sense of longing fills me as I watch them disappear, but I push it aside and try to forget about the beautiful day outside, or any other possible distraction, as I make my way back to my office. There, I find the envelope sitting on my desk, which I rip open to reveal a well put together manuscript. It’s bound better than I would have expected, but I try not to let that set my expectation too high as I start to read.

In a way, The Black Rose, is a relief. It’s much better than the drivel I’ve sorted through all week, but… by chapter six, I’m already convinced this isn’t the blockbuster seller that I need it to be either. Still, I hold out, and over the next three hours I make it to the end. Once I do, I lean back in my chair and let out a heavy breath. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. The writing needs some improvement, the plot is slightly tropy and predictable, and I’m a little worried that once the editors get to it and cut out all the unnecessary fluff there won’t really be much left… but it’s publishable.

Maybe.

Or maybe I’m just desperate.

There’s too much work to be done on it for a weekend I’m spending at home with my family, so I send a text to my new PA, Abby, and ask her to schedule a meeting on Monday with my entire team so we can come up with a strategy of how best to tackle this title, which I fear is going to be a behemoth. Once the email is sent though, and I move to place Mr. Daves’ novel in my bag so that I don’t forget it on Monday, I notice another manuscript that I’d completely forgotten about.

Phoenix, by Hailey Lewis.

With a cursory glance, I look down at the phone sitting on my desk. At home, Christian and I share phone lines, and I can see that he’s currently on a call with someone because of the light illuminated next to the button for line one. He’s undoubtedly taking advantage of Calliope’s nap to finish up whatever he was working on this morning, so I don’t think I’ll be missed if I spend an hour or two reviewing the draft I promised Hailey I’d glance over. I can afford to be a little more comfortable though. So, rather than read at my desk, I pick up a red pen and take the manuscript into the library with me, where I sprawl out on a cushy sofa and begin chapter one.

It’s a sci-fi novel that I would market as young adult, but the story is actually quite complex and interesting. Based in a fictional country which has been taken over by a totalitarian regime that uses violence to squash any attempts at revolution, a young girl named Hazel narrowly escapes a bombing that has killed her entire family and manages to refugee to a safe zone over the border. There, with no loved ones left and no hope for her future, she begins working for the resistance. For several chapters, I read about her journey to become a warrior for her people and then about her victories against her enemy. The title becomes clear. Left horribly burned and scarred from the bombing, she rises from the flames and ashes of her past to become a true hero. But just as I find myself ready to cheer on her victory for the resistance, Hazel finds out that the people she’s dedicated her life to fighting for are only a different side of the same coin as the people who murdered her family. It’s devastating and makes me as the reader feel defeated, until Hazel stands up on her own, sheds the banners of warring countries, and launches her own rebellion. It’s thrilling. Every twist and turn is unexpected and when I finally come to the end, I’m ravenous for more. The whole book reads so effortlessly, that it felt like I was watching a movie, and when I flip back through the notes I made, I realize there are several chapters where I made no annotations at all.

This is it.

This is the story Greenwich needs to publish. It has best seller written all over it. Hell, this could become the next big phenomenon. It’ll take some serious investment, expansion probably, and a dedicated staff comprised of the best of the best, but with the right marketing and editing, we could hang our entire year on this one release. Hell, we could probably ride out the next five years if it lives up to the potential I think it could have. Everyone is going to want this title, big and small publishers alike. The only advantage I have here is that no one else has this yet, and Hailey might be willing to take a gamble with me because of the personal connection we’ve already built. If she does, I’m going to make her the next Suzanne Collins and put GSP right at the top of the Seattle Publishing food chain.

When Christian finally pulls me out of my office so that he and I can share a late dinner together, I’m filled with so much excitement and determination, that I can hardly contain myself. There was some time, when I was sorting through dud after dud in my inbox last week, that I almost thought I’d made a mistake. That my success at Grey Publishing and with Escape might have overinflated my ego a bit and made me believe I was capable of achieving things that were simply unrealistic. But this manuscript has completely erased all of that doubt. I’m that confident in it. And that confidence carries me through the rest of the weekend.

 

****

 

I was wrong before, when I said I wanted Calliope to care that we were leaving her at daycare. I think she thought the place Christian and I dropped her off every morning last week was temporary, and she was willing to give it a try for a week. But when we take her back the following Monday, she devolves into the worst temper tantrum I’ve ever seen. Nothing can console her. She cries, and screams, and kicks… She even hits Kensie in the face when I try to hand her over. And the lecture Christian gives her about hitting when he immediately takes her from our nanny does nothing, because she’s back in his arms, which is all she wanted. But when we finally leave, the tears start again. I step into the hallway outside the locked security door with her screams still ringing loudly behind me.

“She’s going to be fine,” Christian assures me, reaching up to my face and wiping away an escaped tear that I can let show now that my baby is no longer in front of me. “I’ll come check on her after my meetings this morning.”

I nod, but his promise doesn’t make me forget the horrible sounds of Calliope’s screams. Like she was being tortured…

“Hey,” he continues. His fingers wrap around my chin so that he can tilt my face up towards his, forcing me to look into his eyes. “She’s in excellent hands. I don’t want you to worry about her, I want you focus on this book you’re going to pitch. It’s not going to be any fun when Grey Publishing beats your quarterly sales if you can claim that you were distracted by Calliope.”

Despite myself, I smile. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Yes.” He laughs. “And you’re going to be late. I love you.”

“I love you too.” His lips press into mine, washing away a small degree of the pain I feel for leaving Calliope, and then he walks me to the elevator to see me off.

Calliope’s tantrum aside, I feel really good when I get to the office. For the first time, Scott isn’t here to greet me or direct me through what he wants to accomplish today. I’m officially on my own and with Phoenix tucked securely in my bag, I’m feeling more confident about that than I did when I left the office Friday afternoon.

Abby greets me at the door with a mug of tea and an iPad, and she begins running through my schedule for the day as we walk into my office together.

“I’ve booked your flight and hotel for Angela Rowe’s book party in San Francisco, the latest numbers on Pinehart’s sales are on your desk, and you got an email from Calliope’s pediatrician reminding you that her one year booster shots are due. I booked an appointment for April 25th and blocked out your calendar so you’ll be able to go with her.”

I sit at my desk and smile gratefully at her. “You’re a lifesaver, Abby. Really.”

“I do what I can, Mrs. Grey.”

“Ana, please. Is everything all set for our meeting this morning?”

“Yes, ma’am. 09:30 AM. Do you need me to set up any presentations for you?”

“Not today, it should be fairly basic. I’ve got a few emails to respond to and I’ll need to send Pinehart’s number to New York once I’ve reviewed them and made a decision on optioning his second book. Then I’m all set.”

“Perfect. Let me know if you need anything else, Mrs. Grey.”

“Will do, thank you.” She smiles and turns to head back to her place next to Penny at reception, but before she closes the door, I call out to stop her. “Oh, and Abby…”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“Please call me Ana.”

“Right. Ana. Sorry.” I smile at her as she turns to leave, then get to work on everything I have to complete before my meeting this morning, including rehearsing my pitch for Phoenix.

 

The conference room is full by the time I leave my office. Twelve pairs of eyes follow me as I make my way to the head of the table, and before I can even set my things down, I’m barraged with questions.

“Mrs. Grey, I really need you to reconsider the Jefferson Morris title. It’s rough, yes, but I think with the right editing and marketing, it could be a success.”

“Morris is a hack,” a woman named Nadia interjects. “What we really need to discuss is the serious lack of funding that was approved for Rowe’s promotional tour. Pinehurst got almost double what you’ve approved for Rowe…”

“Have you gotten the manuscript from Walter Daves yet?” A hush falls over the room at that question and every pair of eyes turns towards me.

“Yes, I received Daves’ manuscript over the weekend,” I reply. “I’ve read it, and I’ve decided that we aren’t going to pursue The Black Rose for our big summer title.”

There’s a pulse of silence, so intense that it feels heavy, and then a roar as twelve people begin shouting angrily at me.

What do you mean we’re not going to release The Black Rose?

Daves is our best selling author!

You can’t just come in here and cancel my author’s releases! Daves has carried this publishing house for years!

“Exactly,” I say, holding my hands up to the stop the shouting and trying desperately to keep my voice firm. “Daves is the best this press has put out in years, and we’re floundering. Okay, this isn’t a debate. Just like my rejection of Jefferson Morris or the amount of money I’ve allocated to Rowe’s promo tour is not up for debate. I was brought in here to turn this place around, and we’re not going to do that by resting on our laurels and publishing the same weak material over and over again. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you guys, we’re in trouble. And it’s going to take something big to save us. Thankfully, I have something big.”

I reach into my bag, remove the copies that I made of Hailey’s manuscript Sunday night, and begin to pass them around the table.

“This is Phoenix, the debut novel of a local, young author, and it’s brilliant. It’s a young adult, sci-fiction story that I think will work well for audiences aged 12-35, which is our primary demographic, and this one book opens us up for possible franchise opportunities. We’re going to throw all of our weight behind this release, so I want all of you to read it and familiarize yourselves with some of the viral marketing techniques I’ve put together to reach younger audiences. Editing team, you’ll need to get started right away. This is going to be fast so I need everyone on board.”

I pause, expecting questions or requests for more specific direction, but there’s nothing. The people seated around the table before me simply blink at one another, or stare down at the manuscript in their hands as if it’s in an ancient dialect that they can’t understand. At least… for a second.

“Debut novel?” Stevens repeats, the uncertainty in his voice clear. “You’re telling me that you want to cancel the release of our most profitable author to take a chance on an amateur writer who has absolutely no following?”

“Yes. It’s called discovering new talent.”

“No, what it is is bullshit!” Tyler Sullivan, one of our agents, exclaims. “Walter Daves is my author, and I’m not just going to sit back while you discredit everything he’s done for this publishing house so that you can get one of your friends or… one of you or your husband’s bootlicking sycophant’s published. The Stormy Nights Saga built this business. Walter Daves is Greenwich Small Press.”

I take a deep breath and rest both of my hands on the smooth surface of the table before looking Sullivan directly in the eyes. “Tyler, have you actually read The Black Rose?

“Most of it, yes.”

“And what did you think?”

“I thought it was enjoyable. I think we’re going to see just as much success from The Black Rose as we did from Stormy Nights.”

“Really?” I sit in my chair, and click my teeth together in contemplation a few times before continuing. “Tell me, Tyler. What’s your favorite book?”

“Excuse me?”

“Now might be a good time to address one of the bigger issues I think might be hurting us, help you see where I’m coming from. So, I want to know… what’s your favorite book?”

His jaw flexes with irritation. “I’m partial to Tolstoy.”

“Well, that’s an English major answer if I’ve ever heard one. Let’s try again. Jacki, what’s your favorite book?”

She blinks, clearly taken off guard. “Ummm, I don’t know. Pride and Prejudice?”

“Romance. A little old fashioned, but a classic for sure.” I smile encouragingly at her, then begin to pace the table.

“I studied literature at Harvard, so I can’t say that I don’t also enjoy the classics. In fact, I wrote my thesis on the evils of imperialism as is depicted in The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and I took inspiration for my own depiction of desperation for the unobtainable in Escape from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But my favorite book of all time is Harry Potter. Specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I think has something to do with Sirius Black coming into Harry’s life and stepping in as a father figure when he doesn’t really have to, much in the same way my own father came into my life… But the point is, my favorite book is Harry Potter. The magic, the whole new world JK Rowling created… the fantasy. That’s my genre. That’s what makes me love to read. The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire… anything that takes me on an epic journey in a far away world where anything is possible and good overcomes evil. That’s what I want. Sci-fi is good too, though I prefer books based on dystopian futures over aliens, like The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale. But it’s my preference for this genre that makes me an expert. I can tell you what makes a good fantasy hero. I can tell you what themes or plotlines are overdone or cliché. I can tell you what will resonate with other fantasy readers, because I am one. Stevens, you’re currently representing a non-fiction title, a children’s book, and a crime drama. Can you tell me what will make any one of those three a bestseller?”

“Marketing,” he replies.

“No, not what can we do to help boost its numbers. I want you to tell me what specific things in the story itself appeals to the readers who seek out those genres.”

“Ummm…”

“Jacki,” I say, cutting him off. “You said that Pride and Prejudice was your favorite book. Why?”

She blushes. “Mr. Darcy. He’s so wonderful and romantic, and his love for Elizabeth is beautiful.”

“He’s boring,” Tyler says under his breath.

Jacki blushes. “Maybe. I-I guess I’m just a sucker for a happily ever after…”

“And that’s fine. So are millions and millions of other readers just like you. It’s a billion dollar industry, and how many romance novels did we publish last year?”

“None,” Stevens says, and I nod.

“None. Instead, Jacki’s biggest title last year was a horror novel that sold just under 750 copies. So, tell me Jacki, what about that story made you think that it was going to be a success for GSP?”

“Well, I don’t know. It, uh… It just got approved.”

“And it bombed. Now we can talk about the god awful cover art and whether or not we could have done anything to help bolster sales during the release, but the cold hard facts are that that horror story, The House on Switzer Street, was both poorly written and nearly a carbon copy of Stephen King’s Rose Red. Had Jacki been well versed in the genre before she sent it off for approval, she would have known that. We need quality titles and this…” I reach into my bag, pull out my copy of The Black Rose, and toss it onto the table, ”is not quality.”

Every pair of eyes around the table shift down to manuscript before them, but no one says anything. I can tell by the thin lips and several red faces that a few of them want to argue, but won’t.

“I’m telling you,” I say, more gently now, “that this story, Phoenix, is our best move. This is a best seller, and with the right editing and representation, the sales of this one title could eclipse our entire fiscal year from last year. I need you all on board.”

“Yeah,” Jacki says. “She’s right. We need a change. What we’re doing isn’t working. We all know that Mrs. Grey knows how to sell books, we should listen to her.” She turns to look at me. “I’m on board.”

“Good.” There’s a small murmur that makes its way around the table and while it doesn’t necessarily sound confident, it’s not disagreeing either. Maybe most of the people here need to see the outcome of the changes I’m proposing before they fully buy into them, but with something I’m as sure of as I am of Phoenix, I’m okay with that.

“Great, then let’s get to work. We’ll meet on Friday to discuss strategy.”

The room fills with the sound of books closing and chairs scraping against wood as everyone gets out of their seats to return to their desks. I gather my own materials and make a beeline for my office, the disappointment of my team’s less than enthused reaction over Phoenix dissipating as I reach for my phone and dial the number on the note Hailey left for me. It rings twice.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is this Hailey Lewis?”

“Yes it is. May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Anastasia Grey, er… Steele. Do you have a moment?”

“Oh my god, Anastasia Steele! Yes! Yes! Of course I do!”

“Well, Hailey, I just wanted to call and tell you that I finished Phoenix, and I absolutely loved it.”

“You did?”

“I did. And, I’m not sure if you know this, but I’ve recently taken over as the head of Greenwich Small Press. We’re looking for a fiction title to release this summer and I’d like to talk to you about what it would take to get you to sign with GSP.” Several seconds pass, but there’s only silence on the other end of the line. “Hailey? Are you still there?”

“I don’t know. I think I might be sleeping or… maybe dead.”

I laugh. “You’re not dead, I promise. This is real. I’m going to send you an official offer letter, I just wanted to have you on the phone when I told you how truly wonderful your story was.”

“So, you… you really want to publish my book? Like, I’m going to be a real author?”

“Yes, you are.”

“Oh my god.” She’s quiet again, except that I can hear a series of small but harsh broken breaths through the phone that tell me she’s crying. This is overwhelming, I’ve been there before, so I give her a minute. “I don’t know what to say,” she says at last. “Thank you. I mean, you were my hero before, but now…”

“There’s no need to thank me, Hailey. Trust me, you’ve earned this. You’ve truly created something amazing.”

“Ugh! I don’t think I’ll ever get over you saying that. So what now? What do I do?”

“Well, I’ll send an offer letter for you to sign and get back to me and then we’ll meet to discuss the details of your contract. I’ve already given your manuscript to our editing team, so now, unfortunately, all there is to do is wait.”

“Okay. I can do that. Not well, but I can do it.”

“Good. Then I’ll send this contract over to you and we’ll talk again soon. Bye, Hailey. And congratulations.”

“Bye! And thank you. Oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

I hang up the phone, feeling my chest swell with pride and happiness, but as I turn to my computer and pull up the standard contract GSP sends to all of our new authors, I’m distracted by the paging tone on my phone.

“Mrs. Grey, Scott Wallace is on line one for you.”

“Thank you, Penny.” I press my finger into the button next to line one and pick up the phone. “Good morning, Scott. What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me why you’ve pushed the manuscript I sent to you over the weekend off the frontlist.”

“Well, I read it and thought it was extraordinarily average. There’s another work we’re going to be pursuing that I think we’ll find more success with.”

“I didn’t send you that manuscript for your approval, Anastasia. I sent it to you so that you’d get it to your editors. GSP will be moving forward with The Black Rose.”

“I’m sorry, did you read it? It’s not good, Scott.”

“Walter Daves is a bestselling author with an established fan base. We don’t have the luxury of taking chances on unknowns right now because you like fairy tales. This is a business, Anastasia, not your personal book club. Get that manuscript into production.”

Because you like fairy tales? So, someone in that meeting called him.

“No. I’m sorry, but no. This isn’t about my preferences, this about what is going to make this company money. I know it’s been awhile since you’ve had to share this position, Scott, but I’m the President of the Seattle branch, and I am choosing not to move forward with The Black Rose. If you have a problem with that, we can speak with Carmen.”

“I’ve already spoken to Carmen and she’s greenlit the Daves’ title.”

“Wait, you already spoke to her? Why didn’t she call me?”

“I told you this is how it works. You go through me, I go to Carmen. This isn’t a discussion. The decision has been made and you either get on board or you pack your things.” There’s a click as Scott hangs up and then the long droning of the dial tone. My muscles seize with anger. What the hell does he mean get on board or pack your things? He’s not my boss…

But Carmen is.

My body deflates as I sink back into my chair. He’s already got Carmen to sign off on The Black Rose. What am I going to do, call her up and say nu-uh? Scott has numbers on his side. As much as I dislike this story, Tyler was right. Daves’ Stormy Nights series is the biggest title this publishing house has ever released. It was a New York Times bestseller and was nearly optioned by Universal. I brought it up in my interview. Carmen is just like Christian, focused on data and numbers. There’s no way I’d be able to convince her to take a chance on a novice author who’s never been published before over our current sales Juggernaut. Not without some kind of research to back me up.

Gritting my teeth, I get out of my seat and leave my office. Several smug smiles and looks of superiority follow me all the way to reception, but I don’t dignify them with any kind of reaction. My only disappointment is that there are too many people smirking at me for me to immediately know who went to Scott so I can deal with them.

“Abby, I need you to put a focus group together for me,” I say, taking care not to let any hint of nerves our doubt show in my voice.

“A focus group, Mrs. Grey?”

“Eleven participants, ages sixteen to thirty-five, evenly split between males and females.”

“Okay. And this is for…”

“For Phoenix. I’m going to need data if I’m going to explain to Carmen why The Black Rose is a terrible decision for us going forward.”

“That’s not going to work,” a voice says behind me, and I turn to see Tyler standing at his desk, arms crossed, scowling at me. Bingo. “A focus group won’t change anyone’s mind. That’s not the way we do things around here.”

“No, maybe it isn’t,” I say, my voice low and cold. “But it is the way I do things. And as long as my name is on that office, the way that I do things is the way that this branch does things. Anyone who has a problem with that going forward, can go ahead and bypass Mr. Wallace and speak to me directly.”

My eyes narrow in on Tyler, then I push off the counter and storm back to my office, letting the door slam closed behind me.

Next Chapter

Updates

Happy Tuesday everyone! I know that most of the U.S. is experiencing a devastating heat wave, but here in the Pacific Northwest it’s only 48 degrees. So, I think it’s appropriate for a…

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Fireside chat. That’s what that means.

Anyway…

I know I’ve been terrible at updates for WEEKS. And I have all kinds of excuses. My job’s been really busy, we’ve been travelling a lot, my husband is on summer break (he’s a teacher) so he’s been hogging all of the time I usually reserve for writing… but I know that you all probably aren’t interested in excuses. You just want to know where your update is.

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The unfortunate answer is… I’m working on it. I don’t know what it is about Final that’s making it impossible for me to find my groove and get into a routine, but I’ve been on the struggle bus for a few weeks now.

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There are so many things I’m excited for in this story, so I don’t want you to think my interest isn’t there and I’m going to quit. I’m not. In fact, when I sat down and plotted this book out from start to finish, I nearly cried with how well this ending wraps up all four books and finally (haha, get it?) concludes Christian and Ana’s story. Calliope though… there might be more. There’s hardship, and drama, and angst ahead, which you all know I need to live, but the HEA I promised from day one is still fully intact. I want to get there. I’m excited to get there. I’m not going to ghost you all and disappear, promise.

This summer, between family visits, camping trips, vacations, weddings, and standing in line for Seahawks tickets, I might just need some extra time between posts.

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That being said, I’m going to actually take the rest of this week to finish chapter 12, because it’s an important chapter and I don’t want to rush it. And because I want to get back on my Monday schedule. How I thought I’d be able to get back on a Monday schedule when I’ve been posting on Wednesdays because I already couldn’t get it finished in a week is BEYOND me.

But I want to offer a heartfelt and sincere thank you to all of you who have followed me through this long journey we’ve gone on together. Honestly, I really do feel terrible when I don’t have something to post on Mondays because I feel like I owe it to you with how much you guys have been there for me. Without your constant love and support, I probably would have abandoned ship on this story years ago. And now, not only do I have three completed books under my belt that I can look back on and feel proud of, I actually met with some people in LA a few weeks ago to begin work on copyrights and purchasing ISBNs and meeting with cover art artists for my own original novel. That wouldn’t have happened without all of you, so THANK YOU. Truly. For everything I’ve given you these past three years, you’ve given me so much more. And for that I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude.

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Get it? Hahahahaha

(Best Barbra impression: Stick around for the jokes)

So, while I start plugging away at chapter 12 again, I hope you’ll all be like me and will be wishingmrgreywashere.

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