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!”
“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.
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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…
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”