Chapter 18

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Note: This chapter was finished very late last night and there was no time for a beta. Please forgive any mistakes.

“Okay, then blend on medium speed for about two minutes.” I pick up the mixer next to my bowl of ingredients, then cringe away as the beaters whir to life in case any chocolate batter sprays back at me. Thankfully, my undoubtedly Food Network level proficient skills with a hand mixer mean I stay dry, and as I watch the ingredients meld together in a luscious ribbon of dark, fudgy chocolate, my mind starts to wander back to the manuscript that has occupied nearly every thought I’ve had for the past four weeks.

What if we just cut the entire part where he goes to London? The killer is in Boston, that whole chapter is just a red herring and it’s the slowest part of the plot.

Keeping my eyes focused on the task at hand, I carefully lean over and stretch my fingers over the countertop until I can just barely touch the corner of the open Black Rose manuscript and pull it towards me. With a flick of a switch, I kill the power to the mixer, pull out one of the beaters, and lick it thoughtfully as I turn through the pages.

Shit. If we take out London, he’ll never meet the cobbler and that’s the key to the shoe print evidence that leads him to…

“How’s it going in here?”

I turn and see Christian standing in the doorway with Calliope in his arms. She’s already dressed in the party dress we bought for her last week and she looks just like a princess, all in white with a tulle skirt that billows around her like a ball gown. Tied around her waist is a deep navy blue bow that’s almost as big as she is.

I gasp. “Oh my god, look at you, birthday girl!”

Pity!” she chirps, the excitement and pride clear on her face as her fingers curl around her skirts. Christian grins and leans over to kiss her mahogany curls.

“Not just pretty,” he says. “You’re beautiful, baby girl.”

“Just like a princess.” I walk towards them and kiss my baby all over her face, before moving up and leaving a more lingering kiss against Christian’s lips. “How was your daddy/daughter breakfast?”

“Just shy of perfect.” I frown, and he reaches up to run the back of his fingers lovingly over my cheek. “We both missed you.”

I smile and lean in to kiss him again, but Calliope reaches out with her hand and pushes against my face to stop me. “No, Mama.”

“Well maybe not both of you,” I laugh, then nibble on her fingers before turning back to her cake.

“You don’t have to do this,” Christian says, following me back to the counter. “I wanted to make this as easy as possible for you.”

“I know.” In truth, the 2nd cake is a bit excessive. He’s already ordered a gargantuan, four tier masterpiece from the same fancy bakery we used for our wedding cake. The final design is beautiful, with fresh fruit and flowers used as decoration over vanilla buttercream, but it didn’t feel right to me to let someone else bake my daughter’s very first birthday cake. So, I decided to go the traditional route and bake her a small cake that will be all her own.

He sighs, but nods. “Andrea should be arriving soon. She’ll be coordinating the florists, the cake delivery, and the caterers. The people from the petting zoo should be here within the hour to start setting up and we need them to be finished before the crew from Carnival Days gets here to set up the carousel and ferris wheel. Other than that, it’s just actresses I’ve hired to play the Disney Princesses and we’re all set.”

“All eleven of them,” I say, rolling my eyes.

“She’s too young to have a favorite princess, I didn’t want to be exclusionary.”

“Don’t you think this is all a little over the top? I mean, she’s only a year old, Christian. She’s not even going to remember this party.”

“Maybe not. But I will. And I want to look back and remember how happy my baby girl was on her very first birthday.”

The sincerity in his eyes makes my throat tighten. “Well, I guess there’s no arguing with that.”

“Good.” He leans over and brushes his hand softly through my hair before pulling me into him and kissing me deeply. I hum with content, but as he pulls away, his eyes fall on the counter and the still open manuscript I’ve left sitting there. “I don’t think so, Anastasia. No working on our daughter’s birthday.”

I narrow my eyes. “Christian Grey telling me not to work. Which of the two of us has been at the office six nights a week for the last month and getting home later and later each day?”

“But not today.” There’s a smugness to his argument as he reaches behind me for the manuscript and tucks it under his elbow. “I’ll leave this in your office. If you go back for it, you’ll have to give your Monday morning meetings standing up.”

As he turns to leave, I bite my lip and shiver under the rush of endorphins that flow through me. I’d been scared that my unexpected ‘red’ last month would scare away Christian’s kinkier side. Every night for the rest of that week, he’d made love to me. Sweet, slow, passionate love. But as the days turned to one week, then two, I started to crave his rougher side again. I didn’t know what to do. For days, I’d cursed my need to take back control in that moment, thinking of it as weakness, and went so far as to practice in the mirror how I was going to broach talking to him about how I was feeling. I had a whole speech planned out, but when I purposefully dressed in the most bondage-esque lingerie I owned and prepared to give it, my concerns turned out to be completely unfounded.

“Ana, if you want to play, all you have to do is ask.”

“But I thought, maybe, you wouldn’t want to after I’d safe worded.”

“I told you not to be ashamed of that.”

“But–”

“But nothing. I’m glad you did. You needed me to stop, and you told me. That’s all that word is for. You’re not taking something away from me, you’re not being weak, you’re communicating. And that, above all else, is what I need from you. I want you to talk to me about the things you want, and I want you to tell me to stop before I ever go too far.”

“So, you’re not mad?”

“Quite the opposite actually.”

“And…” I bite my lip. “You wouldn’t be opposed to maybe tying me up a little tonight?”

His face stretches into a deviant, sexy smirk. “Oh baby, I’m prepared to do a whole lot more than just tying you up. Now that I know you’ll stop me if it’s too much, I can trust you enough to really test your limits.”

And he has. Nothing too over the top, just new and different toys, restraints, and positions. In the wake of that night, he somehow seems more free. More confident.

More dominant.

Even this morning, I still have a faint red line around each of my wrists from where he’d zip tied me to the curtain rod over our window the previous night and tortured me with a vibrator while he told me all the ways he was going to make me come. I shudder with pleasure at the memory, until Calliope comes prancing back into the kitchen, looking interestedly at the batter I’m pouring into cake pans.

“Come here, sweetie.” I dip my finger into what’s left of the chocolate in the bowl and offer it to her. She’s never had cake before, let alone batter, so she stares at the brown goop cautiously. But after finally accepting a taste, her eyes widen with pure, unfiltered joy.

“Yummy!”

I giggle. “That’s called cake, and you get to eat that on your birthday. Do you know what today is?”

“Me!”

“That’s right! It’s your birthday. You’re one whole year old today.” It hurts to say those words out loud, to admit she’s not my little baby anymore, but I don’t let any disappointment in how fast this year really has gone by show on my face. I pick her up high into the air and spin her around, relishing in her giggles, until the doorbell rings.

“Who’s that?” I ask her.

“Gigi?” Otherwise known as Grandma.

“Let’s go check.” I bring her down and settle her on my hip, then head for the front door where we find, not Grace, but Andrea standing on our doorstep.

“Hi, Callie!” she squeals as I step aside to let her in. “Happy Birthday!”

“Me!”

I laugh. “That’s about as good as we’ve been able to get in terms of birthday.”

“Well, what more do you need?” She grins, then leans in to give me a hug. “How have you been? It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you around the office.”

“Yeah, well… I have to make myself scarce around Grey Publishing. Corporate espionage and all that.”

“Can’t have that.” She turns and beams at Calliope again. “My goodness, this dress turned out so beautiful.”

“Christian demanded we have something custom made. I thought it was going to be our one big splurge for the party and then he ordered a circus.”

She laughs. “Of course he did. You know, after last year, I would have never thought that man could love anything as much as he loves you. But this little one gives you a run for your money.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty hard not to fall under her spell.”

“We sure do miss having her so close,” she sighs. “Especially with all the fallout from the fusion project.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was just nice when he was able to visit her during the day. Sometimes, if he was having a bad day and taking it out on everyone, Ms. Bailey would go down and pull Calliope out of daycare and bring her up to him. He’d be fine after that.”

“Really? Well, uh…”

“I’m sorry, Ana. I didn’t mean to… I mean, we get it. It was just nice having her around is all.” She smiles brightly at me and wiggles her fingers at Calliope again, but the doorbell rings before I can change the subject. “I guess that’s for me,” she says. “I’ll take it from here, Ana. Mr. Grey’s orders.”

“Thank you, Andrea.” With a grateful smile, I turn back to the living room, where Christian and I spend the rest of the morning playing tea party with our little princess.

The last bolts are being screwed into the Ferris Wheel newly erected in our back yard when Christian and I take Calliope upstairs for her nap. He tries to use the little time we have before the first guests arrive to check his emails and look over a few of the new acquisition contracts left over from the previous week, but after insisting that he himself said that we weren’t to work today, I’m able to drag him down in the kitchen with me to frost Calliope’s smash cake.

“This is delicious,” he said through a mouthful of homemade chocolate frosting.

“But it would be a lot more effective if a little more of it made it onto the cake instead of into your mouth.”

“That sounds much less enticing.”

I give him a stern look and pick up one of the spreading knives. “Get to frosting, buddy.”

“Sure thing.” He dips his fingers back into the bowl of frosting and quickly brushes a dollop of it on my nose. My mouth drops open in indignation but he only grins back.

“So that’s how it’s going to be, then?”

“Looks like it.”

“Then just remember that you started this…”

“Don’t test me, Anastasia.”

I place my finger over the tip of the frosting spreader, pull it back, and launch bits of chocolate all over him. He licks the speck of frosting away that landed his lip and dives for me. The spatula falls to the floor as he lifts me off the ground and onto the counter. I guard myself incase there’s another chocolate attack coming my way, but his hands move up into my hair and his mouth meets mine.

“Now what am I going to do with you?”

“Love me forever and ever and ever.”

“Besides that.” He smiles again, and then his eyes look up at the pot rack hanging over the kitchen island, then at the clock, then back at me.

“Don’t you even think about it!” I tell him.

“No?” His fingers move to my sides and I devolve into a fit of giggles as he tickles me relentlessly, only managing to stop myself from falling to the floor by the strength of his fingers. I playfully plead for him to stop through my hitched breathing and laughter, and once he does he pulls me into his arms, holds me close, and kisses the crown of my head.

“Mr. Grey?”

His shoulders rise and fall, then his lips part from my hair and he looks at Taylor waiting stone faced in the doorway. “Yes, Taylor?”

“Your parents have arrived. The rest of my team is helping them carry in Miss Calliope’s presents.”

“They need help?” I repeat, and Taylor cracks a rare smile as he nods. With a last quick kiss, Christian helps me down off the counter, takes my hand, and leads me to the entryway where we find Woods and the four security guards we hired for this party carrying in so many wrapped packages, it looks like the delivery from FAO Schwartz’s annual Christmas toy drive.

“Oh my…”

“We might have gone just a little overboard,” Grace says, leaning in to kiss my cheek as she hands her coat over to Taylor. “But she only turns one once.”

“As made clear by the state of my backyard,” I reply. She beams and moves to Christian, and Carrick steps up into her place.

“I tried to stop her.”

“You did not.” He laughs, shakes his head, and pulls me into a tight hug.

“We’ve missed you, Ana. Sunday brunch hasn’t been the same without you guys.”

“I know. We’ve been meaning to get out there but we’ve just been… busy.”

Carrick looks over at Christian, blank faced, and nods. “Yeah, I imagine.” He steps to the side and reaches a hand out to Christian, while I pull Mia into my side. “How are you doing, son?”

“Great, thanks. You?”

“Really well.” They stand awkwardly before each other, clearly unsure what to say, and Grace and I exchange nervous looks.

“Knock, knock!” For the first time, I breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of that voice.

“Kim,” Christian greets her, warmly. She shrugs out of her jacket and sheepishly passes it to Taylor, before moving over to my husband and kissing each of his cheeks. “Where’s little Calliope?”

“Naptime,” he replies, and she pouts with disappointment.

“Hey, kiddo.” My dad comes through the door with a small package wrapped in the same cartoon wrapping paper he used to wrap my birthday presents in when I was a kid. I smile as I take it and then step into his open embrace.

“Hi, daddy. Thank you for driving all the way up here.”

“Oh, hush. You know we wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He kisses my cheek, then shakes Christian’s hand.

“Can we see the carnival?” Grace asks. Christian nods and as he leads the way to our backyard, my dad drapes an arm over my shoulder and gives me all the new details of a custom wood piece he’s been working on in his shop that he and Kim plan to sell at the Grays Harbor County Fair. Andrea already has punch and snacks spread out on the tables, so we gather around and chat amongst ourselves while we wait for the rest of Calliope’s guests to arrive.

There’s a lot of them. Most every child from the GEH daycare has been invited, even the ones much too old to be friends with Calliope in anyway, and along with them comes their parents. Which immediately explains the vast guest list. In addition to Ros and Welch, nearly every GEH department head is in attendance. As I make my way around the party, playing hostess, Christian and I speak with other Seattle business magnates, city councilmen, and some of the old money elites he schmoozes down at the yacht club whenever he has a big project that needs investors. Most of them have children, though one couple seems to have brought their niece, and every single one of them seems delighted by the grandeur of festivities. They get lost in business talk, congratulating Christian again and again on a recent acquisition his company has made, which they all make out to be a huge deal but he’s never mentioned to me. Honestly, most of it is hard to follow so when I see Luke and Jade appear through the patio doors, I’m only too anxious to get away and catch up with my best friend.

“Excuse me a moment,” I say politely, then squeeze Christian’s arm before turning away and hurrying up the stone steps. It’s only once I make it onto the veranda though, that I realize Luke and Jade aren’t alone. There’s an eight or nine year old girl walking a few paces behind them, glancing around nervously as she tries to stay hidden behind Jade.

“Hey, Luke!” I greet him brightly, pulling him into a hug. He squeezes me, then pulls away so I can do the same to Jade, and hands me the gift bag draped over his arm.

“This is incredible,” Jade tells me, glancing over the rides and the animals currently ripping up all my grass.

“Yeah. It’s a little much, I know…”

“No, it’s perfect. I’m sure the birthday girl is in heaven.” She winks, then pulls the girl I noticed early out from behind her. “Ana, I’d like to introduce you to my little sister, Jessica.”

I smile. “Hi, Jess. I hope you’re ready to play. There’s lots of fun stuff down there.”

“Can I go on the rides?.”

“Of course you can. I think they’re just about to do cotton candy. Do you want to go play with the other kids?” She nods, looks up to Jade for permission, and once Jade gives her the green light smile, she scurries off down the stairs to the crowd of children forming around the cotton candy machine.

“I’d better go with her,” Jade says, uncertainly. “She has a hard time opening up to people she doesn’t know and I don’t want her to feel left out.”

“Find me when you’re done,” Luke tells her. She tells him that she will and with a kiss, she turns and heads down the stairs after Jessica.

“Little sister, huh?”

“Sort of. Jade’s in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. Today was one of their outing days and somehow I knew this was going to top going to the bowling alley.”

“Oh, but that’s sweet. If you two ever break up, can I date her?”

“Absolutely, because if you ever manage to get that past Grey, you’ve earned it.” I laugh, but stop as I notice him glancing around warily.

“What?”

“Guard at the gate, back door, two on the outer perimeter, and Woods at the bottom of the stairs in the house. Is that everyone?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Yes.”

“And where’s Taylor?”

“In his office, watching on the security cameras. Why? Security not tight enough for you again?”

“No, I just want to make sure I know where all the eyes are so I can talk to you in private.”

“About wh–”

“Not here.” He takes my hand and drags me around to a small alcove where the balcony meets the house. It’s about a two foot blind spot between the security cameras on the east and south sides of the house, something only a man as ingrained in our security team as Luke was would know.

“What’s going on?”

“I think I’ve got everything we’re going to get on Alexis Young. If you want to move on this, I suggest we do it soon.”

“Have you figured out why she’s watching us?”

“No idea, but she’s spent just about every day of the last two weeks camped outside of GEH. She has to be collecting information, but I have no idea for who.”

My blood turns cold. “Okay, then we confront her and find out.”

“Ana, maybe this is something we need to get Taylor in on. She’s been dangerous in the past.”

“No. If Taylor knows about any of this, he’ll know you’ve been working for me and it won’t take him long to find out about Kozlowski or the tape we sent to the news to help Carrick’s campaign. Christian and I are finally back in a really good place, I don’t want to drag this shit back into it. We can handle this on our own.”

“I don’t know.”

“Then leave it to me. Tell me where I’ll find her and I’ll go talk to her myself.”

“Yeah, okay.” His voice is sarcastic, and he rolls his eyes to let me know that would never happen in a million years.

“Luke…”

“Fine. But we’re going to have to move quick if we’re going to fool your security. Expect me, all the time. Be ready.”

“Okay. I will.” He looks at me hesitantly for a few more seconds, but there’s not time for further argument because we both hear footsteps on the concrete patio coming in our direction. I expect security, but it turns out to be Christian, which is probably worse.

“What are you doing?” he asks, eyes narrowing in on Luke.

“Just talking,” I reply, quickly stepping out of the alcove and slipping my hand into his. He looks suspiciously between the two of us for a moment, which kills me, but ultimately decides not to press the issue.

“I think it’s time we brought Calliope down,” he says instead.

“Right. Enjoy the rides, Luke.”

“Sure.”

I pull against Christian’s hand, which is required because he doesn’t seem ready to end his overly intense inspection of my best friend. Luke gives him a tight smile and moves quickly past the two of us and down the stairs, and Christian turns his hard gaze down on me.

“Just talking?”

“He’s… in a new relationship. It’s all new to him and sometimes he needs some advice. I’m his best friend.”

“Everything good between the two of them?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “Everything is going great.”

He breathes a sigh of relief and regains his previously happy composure. “Then let’s go get our baby.”

“Our one year old,” I pout dramatically, and he kisses my forehead before taking me by the hand and walking with me back into the house.

Unfortunately, Calliope isn’t quite ready to wake up when I pull her out of her crib. She fusses and fights her droopy eyelids while I change and re-dress her, and once we’ve brought her outside, she seems less concerned with the party than she is with the ends of my hair.

“There she is!” Grace says excitedly, stepping away from Kate, Elliot, and Kennedy for what I’m sure is the first time since they’ve arrived. I smile at the three of them and hurry over.

“Oh, Kate, look at her! That dress is adorable.”

“I know, right?” She beams down at the baby in her arms, her eyes alight with joy, and my heart seems to expand in my chest. Calliope, on the other hand, seems less enthused by her cousin’s arrival.

“Dada,” she says, reaching her arms out for him. He takes her from me, and Calliope gives Kennedy a warning look before burying her face in his shoulder, the way she did to me.

Elliot laughs. “Defense as the best offense, I like it.”

“I’m telling you,” Grace chimes in, “she’ll be less possessive with a little brother or sister…”

“Not gonna happen,” Christian says. He rubs her back reassuringly and tries to bring her closer to the baby, but she squirms in his arms and starts to scream. He frowns and gives Kate an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, she just woke up…”

“Oh, I know about cranky babies,” she smiles back. “But you know, she might just perk up if she gets to open some presents.” Suddenly, Calliope sits up straight and looks at Kate with wide, hopeful eyes. Clearly, presents is a word she remembers from Christmas.

“That’s my girl,” my dad says, coming up behind Elliot and clapping him on the shoulder. “Let’s get to the good stuff, huh?”

“Ray!” Kate exclaims. “Have you met our daughter yet?”

“Not yet. And Annie has told me all about how beautiful she was, but I gotta say… for a writer, her descriptions do not do this baby justice.”

“Awh.” Kate’s beams at him and tilts the baby in her arms so my dad can get a better look. His face breaks into a smile as he leans over to drink her in.

“She got a name?”

“William Howard Taft,” Elliot replies, not missing a beat, and Kate rolls her eyes.

“Kennedy. Her name is Kennedy.”

“Isn’t it perfect?” I ask, smiling at my father. He nods and reaches out to tickle her lips with his index finger.

“Everything about her is perfect. Just perfect.”

“Dada!” Calliope tugs on Christian’s collar, making it obvious to us all that she hasn’t forgotten the word presents yet, and we all laugh at the impatient look on her face.

“Okay, birthday girl. Let’s go open your presents.”

With a stack of gifts in front of her, Calliope seems to get over her post-naptime grumpiness in no time. She sits with Christian and I, unwrapping package after package, in front of a crowd of onlookers. Each gift is more extravagant than the last, especially the ones from the higher ups from within Christian’s own company, and with each designer outfit, expensive toy, or exorbitant bond she opens, I notice Kim’s mouth growing tighter and tighter out of the corner of my eye. Calliope though, seems just as interested in the wrapping paper as she does the Dior trench coat Christian helps her open from Ros.

“Here’s one from Grandpa Ray!” Grace says, passing the package I took from my father earlier this afternoon to Christian and Calliope. I look up at him and he winks back at me. Kim reaches down and takes his hand in hers, then pulls in a deep breath like she’s preparing herself for something.

Calliope, an expert now, quickly tears away the paper to reveal a rather beat up copy Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends. I glance down at it, brow furrowed, until Christian and Calliope start flipping through the pages and I see some very familiar markings on the pages.

“Daddy!”

“It’s the same copy you and I used to read every night before bed when you were real little. I thought maybe you and Calliope could carry on the tradition and it would be like…” He shrugs, always uncomfortable with emotion in front of people. “Like, I was there with you.”

“Of course you are.” I get up and throw my arms around him, hugging him as tightly as I can manage. “I love it, Dad. And she will too. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Kiddo.” He kisses me on the cheek, then lets me go so I can sit with Calliope while she goes through the final few presents she has left, but every time I look up at him, his eyes seem to glitter with pride.

“No, no.” Calliope says, looking through the sea of wrapping paper around her and not finding any more gifts to open.

“All done,” Grace sighs.

“What about Christian and Ana’s present?” Kate asks. Christian looks over at me and smiles. I nearly roll my eyes, because I know he’s more excited to give her our gift than she could ever be to receive it, even though we both know it’s what she’ll love more than anything else in the world.

“Is it ready?” I ask.

“It’s down with the zoo waiting for us.”

“Well then, let’s go.” I take Carrick’s hands as he helps me to my feet, then wrap an arm around Mia as the crowd saunters down to the petting zoo. It was probably a mistake keeping her gift down here, because Calliope very quickly shifts out of gift opening mode with all the animals to look at and pet, but Christian manages to draw her away from a tiny little lamb, just long enough to get her attention.

“Ready, Princess?” he asks. She makes an overly excited sound in response and Christian disappears into the tent the people who own the animals set up for supplies. I hold tightly to Callie, feeling my own excitement mounting as I anticipate her reaction, but when Christian comes back through the vinyl flaps at the entrance to the tent, every emotion bubbling up inside of me vanishes and is replaced by shock.

“Ho-see!” Calliope cries with delight, throwing herself forward and reaching out with her arms. I tighten my hold on her and take a step back. Christian is holding onto a rope, leading a pure white pony, whose hair has been braided with baby pink ribbons, towards us.

“I-I…” I stutter, unable to speak as I stare down at the completely unexpected animal. “I thought we agreed on a puppy?”

“Every little girl has a puppy,” Christian says, running the flat of his hand over the pony’s back. “And you know how much she loves those cartoon pony toys she has.”

“Toys,” I breathe, but I have to recover quickly, because Calliope struggles harder and harder to get to the pony with every passing second.

“Ho-see, Mama. Ho-see!”

I glance up at Christian again and mouth the words, ‘we’ll talk about this later’, to him, then carry her forward and let her enjoy the gift that’s a surprise to both of us.

After Calliope has finally had her fill of her own brand new pony, and the rest of the animals in the petting zoo, it’s time for her birthday cake. I must take a dozen pictures of her sitting in front of the small round cake I baked her this morning, and her staring with interest at the solitary flickering candle in the middle while everyone around her sings. Once the song ends, she’s not really sure what to do, so Christian leans down and helps her blow out the candle, then lets her finally dig in hands first. Her beautiful dress is quickly ruined as every inch of her is covered in chocolate cake and frosting, but while the rest of our guests stand around eating the big cake and fawning over how delicious it is, I sit alone with my baby and watch with complete and utter rapture as she enjoys the tasty treat in front of her. With hands completely covered in cake, she curls her fingers into fists and looks over at me, shaking with elation and she hums a loud and clear ‘Mmmm’, and as the happiness of this perfect washes over me, my eyes well with tears.

It’s moments like this that make life worth living.

The party lasts far longer than we intend for it too. After cake, Calliope wants to go back down to the animals where she spends the rest of her party feeding goats and having my dad hold onto her while she rides around a small little enclosure on her pony. Eventually though, our guests trickle out, our family says their goodbyes, and Calliope passes out in her daddy’s arms. When we lay her down in bed, and see the smallest hint of a smile still painted on her lips, even in sleep, I decide that Christian was right earlier. All of this was worth it to see her so happy on her first birthday.

“Am I in trouble?” he asks, after we’ve closed her door and we’re finally alone.

“Far from it,” I breathe back, and lean in to give him a deep, loving kiss. He hums, then pulls back and brushes the wayward strands of hair from my eyes.

“It was a good party. Almost a shame that it’s over.”

“Over?” I repeat. “Oh no, my love. The birthday festivities may have come to a close, but the party is just about to begin.”

He raises an eyebrow at me, so I give him a tantalizing smile, take his hand, and drag him back to our bedroom.

Next Chapter

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Chapter 17

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It’s amazing how well Jacqueline does her job.

The media coverage of the explosion at GEH yesterday has been ubiquitously negative all morning. Words like careless, malpractice, and dangerous have been tossed around every network as casually as they previously reported the morning weather. It has me wracked with worry over the true extent of what could have happened, and what this is all going to mean for Christian and GEH moving forward. But, somewhere around noon, the dialogue being used by the anchors and live reporters on the news about what happened seems to change.

It’s subtle. Incident becomes accident. Dangerous finds its way to tragic. Soon, the pundits are no longer asking “what went wrong?”, they want to know “what can we do to prevent another horrific mishap like this from occurring again?” I doubt anyone even notices the shift, but I can hear Jacqueline’s voice in every word.

By the time I leave the office, Christian’s publicist has appeared on every local station covering the explosion, and called in for interviews on at least two major networks. The messaging coming out of GEH is so flawless, it feels scripted. Aside from Jacqueline, I’ve also heard interviews from Ros and Welch, and not one word of their statements were inconsistent with the company line. The only person who hasn’t made a statement yet is Christian, and the news is so hungry for his press conference this evening, one would think the president was about to address the nation from the Oval Office.

Like I said, it’s amazing how well Jacqueline does her job.

 

After spending the first few minutes of the commute home reading the most recent article brought up by my newly reactivated ‘Christian Grey’ google alert, I drop my phone on the leather seat next to me, close my eyes, and let my head fall back on the headrest. As if the utter exhaustion wasn’t enough to weigh me down, I feel like I’m being torn apart by the completely paradoxical emotions rolling through me.

On one side, I’m just happy Christian got out of that building unscathed. I can’t count the number of prayers I said in those long hours I spent waiting on the sidewalk outside of GEH, bargaining with everything I had to see him walk out just the way he did. So it seems wrong for me to be anything but grateful now that he’s out and safe. But in the absence of the fear that I might never hold him again, I can feel the weight of what truly happened. How many people were put at risk? How many more people could have been hurt? How many more wives, children, or parents watched the smoke filling the streets around the building, wondering just the way I was if they would ever see their loved ones again? And all because Christian ignored the advice of experts and everyone around him, and pursued this project anyway. Is still pursuing it.

But his intentions are good.

Yes, his motivations are driven by unresolved guilt and anger over what happened with Andrew Lincoln, but he’s chosen to direct his need for control and power into something he genuinely believes will benefit humanity. There are risks, dangers that I wasn’t even aware of until yesterday, but history is littered with innovation that could have very well been catastrophic had it not been successful. To throw away progress simply because it’s better to err on the side of caution would mean we would never have airplanes, space shuttles, or electricity. As long as I’ve known him, he’s talked about how green energy was the next big frontier in technological development, and I know what it means to him to be pioneering the way into a cleaner, more ecologically sound future.

But Calliope was in that building.

“Ana?” I open my eyes and look up to meet my CPO’s concerned gaze in the rearview mirror. “There’s a coffee shop coming up here on this next corner, would you like me to stop and get you something?”

“No. Thank you, Evan, but I’m ready to get home..”

“Alright. Just wanna make sure I’m not losing you back there.”

I smile at his reflection, then reach down to pick up my phone again. I don’t know what kind of day Christian has actually had, so I’ve refrained from calling or texting in case he was in the middle of something important. But it’s past five now and his press conference isn’t for a few more hours.

How was your day?

 

Brutal. The only thing that’s gotten me through are thoughts of you.

I stare down at the text as Woods continues to navigate through the heavy evening traffic en route back to our house, and while his sweet words wash over me I can’t help but smile. The blatant sentimentality in his text strikes against the chord in my heart that wants to forget about yesterday and move forward like it never happened. Because the warmth that washes over me in that moment is the first sense of calm and ease I’ve felt all day. After dealing with Scott, Hailey, Alexis, the exhaustion from my sleepless night, and the lingering uneasiness from the cold, threatening voice that no longer seems to be confined to my nightmares, I don’t want to worry over or doubt the one absolute good in my life.

 

Him.

His love.

Us.

 

But Calliope was in that building.

 

God, I’ve never felt so torn in half.

 

I swallow, trying to push away the tightness that grips my chest, and respond to his last text.

Me too. I love you.

 

I love you too, baby. I’ll see you tonight after my press conference is over.

 

Okay, I’ll be waiting. Good luck!

He doesn’t respond, and I spend the rest of the ride home forcing Woods to play all of the old, corny car games my mom taught me when I was young to keep myself awake. When we finally do get back to the house, I’m single minded in getting Calliope back into my arms, and while it doesn’t take me long to find her, I’m surprised when I do. She’s sitting on the kitchen floor with Kensie, dressed only in a diaper, and she’s covered head to toe in chocolate pudding.

“What in the world?” I gasp, grinning. Her face lights up when she sees me, and she reaches out with sticky fingers for me to pick her up.

“Mama! Mama!”

“Hey, baby girl!” With no concern for my cream, chiffon blouse, I lift her off the floor and settle her down on my hip. “What are you doing?”

“Pudding painting,” Kensie answers, also getting to her feet. “She’s been a little antsy today, so I wanted to give her something to do with her hands. Unfortunately, she’s been more interested in painting herself than the paper I gave her.”

“And eating it,” I add, noting the chocolate goatee around her mouth. “Looks like my little artist is going to need a bath before dinner.” I inhale the warm, comforting scent wafting from the oven then glance behind me in search of our strangely absent housekeeper. “Where’s Gail?”

The voice that answers is both unexpected and unwelcome. “Oh, we weren’t doing anything so I thought I’d whip up some comfort food for you and Christian and give her a night off.”

I turn and find my dad’s girlfriend standing in the archway between our kitchen and living room, eyes shining with delight as she stares at the messy baby in my arms.

“Kim, what are you doing here?”

“Well, once we saw what happened to Christian on the news, your daddy wanted to get up here as quickly as possible to check on you. But you weren’t here. Gail told us you went to work so we’ve just been waiting around all day for you to get home.”

“Oh. Where’s my dad?”

She nods behind her. “He’s out back. Little Callie here got a splinter this morning playing on her rocking horse, so he sanded it down and put on a fresh coat of lacquer.”

I look down and notice for the first time that there’s a lilac colored bandage, mostly concealed by chocolate pudding, wrapped around her tiny little index finger. “What’s this, baby girl?”

“Owie,” Calliope replies, a pitifully wounded look crossing her eyes as she holds her finger up for me to see. I kiss it several time in rapid succession, then look at Kim again.

“Well, thank you for… taking care of her.”

She beams. “It was all Raymond. He’s so good with her.”

“Yeah.” I shift Calliope higher onto my hip and pick up a towel off the counter to wipe her hands so she’ll stop sucking the pudding off her fingers. “Your daddy would have a heart attack if he saw you right now. We need to go get you into a bath, munchkin.”

“No!” she cries, her hands moving back to her tummy so she can coat them in chocolate once again and smear the mess over the rest of her body. I laugh and scrunch my nose up against hers, then take her from the kitchen to her bathroom to get washed up and changed. She’s much grumpier after she’s been put into fresh clothes, but her attitude changes once she’s back at the dining room table with the bowl of the white fish, carrot, and leek puree Gail prepared this morning in front of her. Though, after getting to play with pudding all afternoon, she’s no longer interested in eating her dinner from the spoon I offer her. Instead, she dips her fingers into the bowl and shoves her whole hand into her mouth, laughing up at me every time she pulls away clean fingers.

“Mmm,” I hum happily when she begins bouncing in her seat. “Is that yummy?”

“Nummy!”

Kim laughs as she starts placing dishes from the meal she’s prepared on the table in front of me. “She’s a good eater, you have to give her that.”

“She gets it from her daddy,” I reply, not taking my eyes off Calliope. “As long as it’s freshly made and complex, she’ll eat it. Grace tried to give her a jar of Gerber apple puree the last time we were out together, but Calliope turned her bougie little nose up at it.”

“That’s because she’s spoiled.”

My eyes snap up and my back goes stiff straight. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, come on, Annie. She’s adorable but your husband gives her anything and everything she wants. If you’re not careful and start telling her no every once in a while, you’re going to have a little monster on your hands.”

It’s a sentiment that I’ve expressed to Christian over and over again, except that I would never call my daughter a monster. Yet, when Kim makes the same suggestion, my blood begins to boil.

“First of all…” I begin, but I’m cut off by my dad entering the dining room.

“Hey, Annie!” He moves from the door to my side in a motion so swift, it feels like he closes the distance in a single step. His hands smell strongly of varnish as he wraps his arms around me, but there’s something comforting in that. A nostalgic kind of ease that makes my worries over Christian, my irritation with Kim, and the battle I’m fighting at work seem suddenly uncomplicated and unimportant.

“Hi, Daddy.” I breathe in relief.

“You didn’t call me, sweetheart. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t call anyone… I was—“

“Preoccupied, I know.” He releases me so I can settle back into my chair next to Calliope, then brushes his hand over the soft hair on top of her head before sitting next to me and graciously accepting the dish Kim offers him. “What happened, Annie?”

“I don’t really know,” I admit. “Christian says it was an accident. Something went wrong with the cooling systems on the prototype they built and then it exploded.”

“Is everyone alright?”

I nod, meekly. “The roof collapsed over the lab and one of his engineers broke his leg under the rubble, but other than that everyone was fine.”

“Good. When I saw the smoke and the broken glass on the news, I thought…” He pauses, his eyes shifting away into open space with a hundred yard stare. I reach over and take his hand, wondering if the images of GEH bring up painful memories from the war, but he doesn’t elaborate any further. With a slight shake of his head, his fingers grip mine and his mouth curls up into a forced kind of smile. “I’m just glad you’re all okay.”

“Where is Christian, anyway?” Kim interjects. “If he’s not home soon, dinner will be cold.”

“He’s still at the office,” I tell her. “He has to make a statement about what happened, so he’s giving a press conference tonight.”

“And you’re not going?”

I swallow. My dad is exactly the person I feel most comfortable talking to about the impossible conundrum I’ve been battling with all day, to help me figure out what I’m really feeling right now, but I’d prefer if we could have this conversation without Kim. I can feel his expectant gaze on me while I push the casserole Kim has made around my plate, and thankfully, he seems to read my reticence perfectly.

“Why don’t you and I go talk alone for a minute, huh?”

“Yeah,” I reply gratefully. He rises from the table and takes my hand, but before he leads me from the dining room, he turns back and kisses the top of Kim’s head in the sweet, loving way Christian always does to me.

“Thank you for a delicious dinner.”

“You hardly ate.”

“Well, don’t touch my plate and I’ll come back for it.” He smiles down at her. Easy. Carefree.

It makes me ache for Christian and reignites my guilt over the trepidation I’ve been feeling instead of simply being grateful that I didn’t have to face the alternative.

I take a reassuring breath as I follow my father through the back door onto the veranda. The sun is low in the sky, turning the water at the edge of my yard different shades of gold and scarlet. A small breath of cool wind makes the grass below the terrace sway lazily back and forth. It’s quiet. Serene even.

“What’s going on, Annie?” my dad prompts me, settling into one of the padded chairs around the glass table where Calliope’s rocking horse is drying. I take the seat next to him and look anywhere but his eyes.

“This project Christian’s working on… it scares me.”

“Well, of course it does. After what happened yesterday, how could it not?”

I gnaw on my bottom lip. “Yeah, but he’s not going to give it up. This project is more to him than just clean energy and fuel free sports cars… It’s his way of making sure what happened last year never happens again. I think I’m only just now starting to realize how much he blames himself for what happened, for not being able to protect me, and that guilt is keeping him from thinking straight. The explosion was an accident, but he was warned that what he wanted to do was impossible. Dangerous even. Ros said that all the experts he’s hired have told him what he wants to do can’t be done, even Elliot’s tried talking to him. But he doesn’t listen. All he cares about is the power this technology will afford him once it works and he can distribute it… but it’s already put him in danger once. What if next time he’s not so lucky? What if this investigation Carrick has to do now causes him to lose everything? The amount of fines he could end paying… I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know what to do.”

My dad sighs and leans forward, taking both my hands in his and waiting until I look at him. “Have you talked to him?”

“No. I don’t know what to say to him. Part of me feels like this is my fault. If I hadn’t fallen apart like I did, he wouldn’t feel the need to—“

“Hey, don’t do that. What you went through, most people can’t even fathom. Whichever way you needed to process that is okay. You’re allowed to feel however you feel, and so is Christian. It sounds to me like you two just need to get on the same page and that’s not going to happen if you don’t tell him exactly what you just told me.”

“I don’t want him to think I don’t believe in him. I think that’s why he and his dad fight so much. Carrick is a realist. Christian’s a dreamer. Whenever they clash over something like this, they fall apart and…” A brief image of Elena’s superior smirk flashes through my mind’s eye, and my head falls. “He needs someone on his side and I want to be that person. Always.”

“But you’re not on his side. Not if you’re not being honest with him about how you feel.”

“I don’t think it’s that easy.”

His chest heaves as he takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair again. “Maybe it’s not, by yourself anyway. Maybe therapy could help you—“

“Dad…”

“Annie, just listen to me for a minute, okay? I know you’re trying to be okay, but you’re not. You can tell us that you are until you’re blue in the face, but we all see it. You’re right. Christian blames himself for what happened and no matter what I’ve said, no matter what Carrick or Elliot or even your therapist says, nothing is going to change that. Not as long as he thinks you’re still barely holding on by a thread. If you want to help him, you’ve gotta help yourself, baby girl.”

“I have been. I’ve moved on, Dad. I’m just fine.”

“Ana.” The way he stares at me, imploring me with his eyes, seems to drill a hole right through my chest, and the edges of the void crumble away, expanding, until it feels like it’s going to swallow me in darkness. And from the shadows, I can hear the echo of Lincoln’s cold, vile threats. I can feel him standing over me. Watching me. Waiting for me.

“This isn’t about me,” I say, jumping too quickly to my feet. “I don’t need to talk, I need to forget.” I turn from the table and storm into the house, my hands shaking as I yearn desperately to get Calliope in my hands so that I can lock her away. But after pulling her from her highchair, ignoring Kim’s questions, and moving purposefully towards the stairs, I hear Kensie call for me from the living room.

“Ana? The mayor is about to come on TV.”

I stop and look through the open archway where she and Woods are already sitting on the couch, watching the news. Instantly, the vaguely threatening fog clouding my mind clears and the instinctual need to hide vanishes. I lean down and kiss Calliope’s cheeks, then take her into the living room with me, where I sit on the couch next to our nanny and focus on the headline dragging across the bottom of the screen.

 

Christian Grey to address Grey Enterprises Holdings Explosion

 

“Hi, Mama,” Calliope says, forcing her fingers into my mouth as I listen intently to every word being said on the television.

“Hi, baby,” I mumble back distractedly. My voice is pleasant, happy, but my eyes stay glued to the screen. My dad takes the seat on the sofa next to me then, Kim settling down on his other side. He tries to take the baby from me, but she screams, ‘no’. Her arms and legs wrap around me, so I rock her back and forth as Kensie turns up the volume on the TV.

The newscaster for KIRO 7 looks serious as she reiterates the events that happened the day before, but I note again how carefully she’s avoiding words like ‘wrongdoing’, or ‘at fault’. There’s a cut away, followed by an interview with Carrick that feels oddly antagonistic. Any discussion of the investigation being launched by the city of Seattle almost comes across as a violation. Unnecessary government meddling. There’s even a point where the interviewer asks a question in a way that subtly suggests that Carrick is being unnecessarily critical over the accident because of his relation to Christian.

“It’s no secret, Mr. Mayor, that you’ve clashed with Mr. Grey previously this year on corporate tax rates, which has stalled the approval of this year’s budget, and many pro-business city councilmen have sided with your son. Some have claimed that this investigation is merely a bargaining tool being used by the Mayor’s office to push your own agenda regarding tax reform.”

Carrick struggles not to roll his eyes. “We’re all pro-business, Meredith, let me assure you. And while my plan for comprehensive tax reform is beneficial to every Seattle resident, not just the wealthiest one percent, that particular issue has no bearing on this investigation. The city’s goal is to ensure that Grey Enterprises Holdings did not disregard safety protocols and procedures, whether intentionally or through negligence, and put the well being of the public at risk.”

“Well, hopefully we’ll get some additional insight into what those safety procedures were during tonight’s press conference. Thank you, Mr. Mayor.”

“My pleasure, Meredith.” The split screen merges back into one and the faintly hostile expression being worn by the anchorwoman vanishes immediately. Another subtle sign of Jacqueline’s due diligence.

I take a deep breath as the feed changes to the lobby of Christian’s building, where dozens of reporters sit before an empty podium. The video has been set up in a way that the damage from the explosion can’t be seen by the viewer. The shattered glass has been cleared, the floors have been polished. The only thing in view of the camera is the wall composed entirely of high definition screens, which display branding for Grey Enterprises Holdings with perfect clarity, even through the camera. The logo flashes three or four times, then the elevator just visible on the right side of the screen opens and Christian approaches the podium. A hush falls over the crowd of reporters and everyone one of us lean in closer to the TV.

“Good evening,” he begins, subtly adjusting his tie as he lays the cards with his speech written on them down on the podium. It’s the only sign of nerves in his otherwise perfectly composed disposition.

“Dada?” Calliope says, turning to the TV the moment she recognizes his voice.

I frown. “Kensie, will you take her upstairs and try to put her down? She shouldn’t watch this.”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.” She takes Calliope from my lap, then disappears into the entrance hall. I tuck my legs beneath me on the sofa and my dad’s hand moves down to hold my foot in a gesture of support.

“Yesterday at approximately 12:45 PM,” Christian continues, “there was an explosion in the Grey Enterprises Holdings Research and Development laboratory. As of this morning, I have allocated all available company resources into the internal investigation being carried out by my own team and have instructed everyone involved in the accident to comply with and assist all state and local authorities with their external investigation. Though, undoubtedly, there will be redundancies. In the meantime, all research and practical applications of this project have been relocated to a safe, remote testing site located outside of the city. Miss Bailey and I have reached out to the families of the four people wounded in the accident and offered our sincere commiserations over what happened and made clear to them that GEH stands with them in every possible way as they receive care for their injuries. I would like to take this time to acknowledge and thank Seattle’s police and fire departments, who responded to yesterday’s tragic accident both quickly and heroically.”

There is a split second of agreement, followed immediately by the clicks and flashes of cameras and shouts of questions. Christian ignores all of it and moves onto the next card. Why he bothers with the cards at all, I’m not sure. His delivery is flawless, as if he’s reciting the speech from memory.

“It’s unfortunate that this project has been brought to the attention of the public before it’s completion, only because even my team cannot yet be certain of its full potential or the vast array of benefits this technology will afford this city, and the people of the world. The mission of Grey Enterprises Holdings is to constantly push the boundaries of innovation and invention so that we may build a more sustainable future. It is with that goal in mind that this energy project came to be. In conjunction with the world’s foremost experts in nuclear physics and engineering, GEH has charged forward into the uncharted frontier of clean, limitless energy. Too long have the goals of our greatest energy creators been to change the way we use energy, to burn fossil fuels and coal more cleanly or to simply reduce their consumption. But it is that kind of limited thinking that has failed us all. We’re being led to believe that the same technology available to us in the early 20th century is adequate for our needs today. I reject that. I reject that for all that modern technology has done to advance every aspect of our day to day lives, we create energy in much the same way we did a century ago.”

The room grows dark, and the high definition screens behind Christian go black. Then, there’s a cut in the feed from the press conference to a pre-recorded video that’s starts with dramatic music and the stark, compelling images of the consequences of wasteful energy. Pollution, waste, global warming… the clip paints a bleak portrait of the future until it introduces Christian’s fusion project as the answer to all of the world’s problems.

Grandiose promises are made. Everything from saving the environment to ending wars in the Middle East. It would feel over the top, if it weren’t so masterfully done, and the part that cuts to Ros and Christian talking about how nothing throughout history that was worthwhile was achieved without setbacks or adversity would be cheesy if he didn’t look so confident and handsome on the screen. He makes promises for thousands of good paying jobs for the people of Seattle. He paints a picture of the future that every parent would want for their child, that he specifically says he wants for his daughter. By the time the video ends, even I am left with such a feeling of hope that one would think he’d just introduced the key to humanity’s survival.

At first, the press don’t know how to react. No questions were answered about what really happened, and he didn’t even address the investigation being done by the city. His entire speech and the video they presented to a live television audience was just one big sales pitch. But if Christian’s nervous that his presentation didn’t make the impact he hoped it would, his face doesn’t portray it. He stands there looking composed and sure, until the spell of the vision he just laid out to the world is broken and the reporters launch their first questions at him from the crowd.

It’s brutal. For nearly twenty minutes he’s bombarded on live TV with inquires about what happened and what safety protocols were in place at the time of the explosion. Most of his answers are vague, capitalizing on an incomplete investigation to avoid saying anything incriminating. But just like it did this morning, the tone of the press conference quickly begins to shift. Christian continues repeating the economic benefits of this project, the job creation possibilities, and the environmental benefits, and eventually the press buys in. I sit on my phone until well after the Q&A has ended, reading the first reactions being posted online and nearly every one of them puts Christian in a positive light. The official GEH PixC account releases a photo from the press conference with a few choice excerpts of Christian’s speech, and the comment section is full of support for his project. There’s even an entire thread of discussion in the online feed for KIRO 7 News about how the city’s investigation against GEH is killing jobs.

“It sounds to me like you’ve got nothing to worry about, kiddo,” my dad says. “He’s put a lot more into this than I thought.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “Yeah, he did great.”

 

It’s late, too late for he and Kim to make the drive back to Montesano, so I help them get settled in one of the guest rooms. Once I’ve made sure they have everything they need, I check to make sure Calliope is sleeping soundly and head back downstairs to watch as much of the post press conference news coverage as I can. By the time I hear the garage open, signaling Christian has finally arrived home, it’s clear that he’s done exactly what he aimed to. So long as he plays his cards right, he and GEH should come out of this unscathed. And I’m glad to find the relief outweighs the sense of foreboding I still feel over the future of this project.

“You’re still awake,” Christian says, surprised when he enters the kitchen and finds me still perched on the sofa. He sets his things down on the counter, but hovers in the archway. “I thought you’d be in bed by now.”

“I told you I’d wait up.”

“But, you didn’t sleep last night. I would have forgiven you for going back on your promise.”

“That’s generous, but our bed holds no interest for me without you in it.”

The tired, serious look on his face breaks at my words, like the sun finally shining through a thick blanket of storm clouds, and he immediately moves into the living room to give me a tender kiss.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” he says. “I’ve been yearning for these lips all day.”

“Mmm,” I hum in response. “Then I’m glad I stayed up.”

He smiles again and turns back for the kitchen. “I’m going to have bourbon. Can I get you anything? More wine? Or would you rather have Tequila?”

“Depends on how tired you are,” I reply, coyly. His expression is alight with good humor, which makes me believe his drink is a celebration over his successful press conference, rather than a consolation prize after an overly difficult day. I watch every move he makes as he pours our drinks, realizing again as I take in his lithe, strong body how grateful I am that yesterday’s events are behind us and he’s safe at home. He saunters towards me with two tumblers dangling from the fingers of one hand, and his phone in the other. As he hands me the glass of silvery alcohol, music begins playing softly from across the room.

“I saw your father’s car outside,” he says, settling down on the couch next to me.

“He and Kim came to check on you. They saw the news coverage and were worried.”

“Then I’m sorry I was late.”

“That’s okay.” I pause to take a drink of my tequila, summoning the courage to talk to him about the parts of all of this that have had my stomach tied in knots all day, but before I can fully pull my drink away, his hand slides over my cheek and he pulls my lips to his again.

“Mmm,” he hums in content. “Tell me about your day.”

“Oh, it was fine.”

“Just fine?”

I sigh, then drain the rest of my glass, set it on the table next to the armrest, and crawl into his lap. “I lost Phoenix today.”

His brow furrows. “What happened?”

“Scott. He went to Carmen while I was out yesterday and told her we were moving forward with The Black Rose. I had to meet with the author today and let her know I’m not going to be able to get her published after all.”

“Did she take it poorly?”

“No. I kind of… subtly pushed her towards Lydia, so she’ll get published somewhere. I’m just upset that I’m not going to get the chance to work on the project myself. Especially when I’m now stuck with something that is going to take an actual miracle to salvage.”

“What’s her name again?”

“Who?”

“Your author.”

“Oh, Hailey Lewis.”

“I could pass her manuscript off to Elizabeth, if you want. Sign her to GP. It’ll mean she’s close and I can keep you updated on where she’s at in the publishing process.”

I narrow my eyes. “That might work on reporters, but not on me. I’m not about to pass off a book I know will be a best seller to my biggest local competitor. Nice try.”

He grins. “I had to give it a shot.”

“Uh huh.” Still smiling, he leans into me and kisses me again. But he doesn’t pull away this time. His lips linger against mine, pushing deeper until eventually his tongue slides purposefully into my mouth. I moan in contentment and wrap my arms around him. Blindly, he reaches behind his back and places the tumbler on his own side table, and with free hands he shifts me so that I’m pinned beneath him on the cushions. The weight of him seems to fill the emptiness I’ve held in my chest all evening, and it’s only too easy to forget all the things we still need to talk about with his warm, masculine scent swirling through my senses.

“Wait,” I gasp, but when I break the kiss, his lips simply move down to my throat.

“What?” he asks against my skin.

“We need to talk.”

“Later.” His hands move up and begin to knead my breast over my shirt. His fingers find my nipples through the fabric and with a sharp, biting pinch, I’m nearly lost again. His tongue is hot and smooth on my skin, his erection digs into my hip like he’s turned to stone. Every primal urge threatens to overcome me, but I resist. My fingers curl into the roots of his hair and I pull him back so that his mouth can no longer distract me.

“Now.”

He groans, but sits up so that I can squirm out from beneath him. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I—“ The words stick in my throat, and I have to swallow three times to coax them out. “I can’t go through another day like yesterday again, Christian.”

His shoulders fall and he sighs. “I know. And you won’t have to, I promise. We’ve found a new testing facility in Kent. Everything is being moved there tomorrow.”

“So? I’ll have to drive farther the next time you’re buried underground?”

“Anastasia…”

“You’ll be there too, Christian. Wherever they test the next prototype, you’ll go there, and if there’s another accident, another explosion… you might not be so lucky next time.”

“There won’t be another accident,” he says confidently. “Where everyone else sees disaster in what happened, we see progress. We’ve learned. It was a coding error that made the cooling systems fail and that’s easy to fix. The next one will be perfect.”

“You wouldn’t have tested the last one if you didn’t think it was perfect.”

“Mistakes happen, Ana.”

“And I don’t want you making ones that could cost you your life. You’re a father now, Christian. Think about Calliope and what would it would have been like for her if you never came out of that lab. She can’t lose you, and neither can I.”

“You won’t.”

“She was in the building!”

“You don’t think I thought about that every second I was down there?” There’s a flare of anger in his voice now. “You don’t think I worried constantly that the explosion was bigger than it was? That enough of the building had been damaged that she wouldn’t be able to get out, or worse. I know the risks, Anastasia, and it gives me no pleasure to take them, but this is what has to be done!”

“It doesn’t though! You can stop. You can scrap the project with the snap of your fingers.”

“After that press conference?”

My mouth drops open to argue, but no words come out. He’s right, if he doesn’t fulfill the promises he made to the public tonight, GEH’s credibility will be ruined forever. The thought is like a needle piercing the wall of a balloon filled with all the fight I was able to bring to this argument, and as it loses air, so do I.

“Hey,” he says, placing a finger under my chin and tilting my face back up to his. “It’s not going to happen again.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I know better now. Because my team knows better. I won’t let it get to that point again and I’ll make sure the fail safes are in place and functioning before anymore testing is done.”

“You promise?”

“Promise.”

“And if anything makes you, or the people working with you think this is going somewhere unsafe, you’ll stop?”

“Yes.”

“No matter how close you get? Even if you think you’re on the verge of a break through?”

He sighs. “If it gets dangerous, I’ll pull the plug and move on.”

“Swear to me.”  

“On my love.” He takes my hand and places it over his heart. I glance down at it, feeling the heat of his hand and the steady thump inside his chest, then look up, past the gray of his eyes, searching for any hint of a lie or a bluff and finding nothing. I try to take comfort in that, but I also know that Christian has a perfect poker face.

 

Trust, Ana. He’s your husband and he loves you. He’s put everything on the line for you before. This is where you have to TRUST that he will stop when this is too much for you to bear.

 

With a slow, even breath, I lean forward and gently press my lips against his once more. We hardly touch. My kiss is a mere whisper of my love against his mouth, coaxing him, taunting him, and he takes it for exactly what it is. An invitation.

His arms twist around me and once again he lays me out on the sofa, covering my body with his. Through our clothes, I can feel his desirous heat melting over me like wax dripping from a candle. He lets out a need laden groan each time our lips part for even the smallest fraction of a second. His strong hands curl into my clothes with a barely contained violence, as if it’s taking every ounce of his already restrained self-discipline not to shred the fabric and let it fall in tatters to the floor.

This is how I want him. Right now, I need his dominance. Because, just like it did when he finally coaxed me out of bed last September, it means the power is truly mine. It’s a test of my trust, and his restraint. It’s a test of how far he’s really willing to go. One word to stop him. One word, and everything ends.

My teeth sink harshly into his bottom lip and he lets out a sharp, “ah!” before he pulls away. The disapproval of my small act of rebellion is clear in the eyes of molten steel that look down on me. I give him a playful, defiant smile.

“Uh oh. Now what are you going to do about that?”

He face twists with desire, and his words come out low and throaty. “You want to play?”

“Only if you consider dominating me a game.” He growls, sweeps me up off the couch, and slings me over his shoulder like a sack of flour. As he climbs the stairs, his strong hands grip the back of my thighs, digging into my flesh with unfettered want as though he’s exercising a great deal of restraint to keep them from moving up my legs to what he really wants. The hallway to our bedroom is dark, but I can feel the lines of his hard body through the thin, but sturdy cotton of his shirt. My anticipation mounts with each step, and by the time he tosses me onto our bed, my whole body hums with desire.

“Hands over your head,” he commands. Immediately, I reach up, pushing the tops of my forearms into the comforter. He pulls my shirt over my head, then makes quick work of the clasp and straps on my bra. The cool air wafting through the open balcony doors has my nipples hard and tight, and while he pulls my skirt and panties down my legs, his mouth ravishes both of them.

“Don’t move,” he tells me once I’m completely naked.

“Yes, Sir.”

After one last appraisal of my body in the moonlight, he turns to the dresser, pulls a black velvet box from the top drawer, and removes a single, silver key. I watch it glint in the pale iridescent light as I follow each and every one of his silent steps across to the carpet to the locked closet door on the other side of the room. It has its own light, and once he’s opened the door and stepped into the roomy space, the beam stretches over to the bed and floods over me. Each curve in my breasts, my shoulders, my hips, or my knees creates shadows opposite the glow that kisses my skin, and the contrast makes me feel sexy and desirable. I want to squirm. I want to call him back. I want to reach between my legs and ease the ache his touch has left me with. But I don’t. I lie perfectly still, because that’s how he said he wanted me.

“What is your safe word?” he asks, moving back to the bed with a complicated restraint mechanism that ends in two leather cuffs meant to secure each of my wrists.

“Red,” I reply, mouth dry. He nods and climbs on the bed, right over the top of me. His knees press against my sides as he buckles me in and his erection, still concealed inside his trousers, strains tightly against the fabric down his right thigh. I can’t help myself. I lean up, mouth open, and drag my lips over the bulge, letting my hot breath wash over him and seep through the material. The leather strap on the last cuff jerks violently as he hastily tightens it, then his hand finds its way under my jaw and he pulls my face up, forcing me to look at him.

“Don’t be greedy, Anastasia.”

I bite my lip at the chastisement, which makes him moan before he claims my mouth again. His kiss is different now. Demanding, fervent, and controlled. I can feel myself getting wetter and wetter with each brush of his tongue against mine and every nip of his teeth at my lips. My need for him blooms wildly from my core and through my veins until I’m whimpering for his touch.

“Please,” I whisper, because whispering is all I can manage.

“Please, what?”

“Master.”

The satisfied, sandpaper sound he makes after hearing that word is immediately followed by the jingle of his belt and the low sound of his zipper. “This is going to be hard and quick, baby,” he warns me. “Do not come until I tell you to.”

“Yes, Sir.” His hand comes down hard on my thigh, the slap sounding more violent than the sting in my skin really feels. I shutter and clench, then open my legs for him. He kneels between my thighs, back straight and proud, eyes smoldering, his cock gripped tightly in his fist as he stares and the apex of my thighs.

“So god damn beautiful,” he whispers in awe, then he pushes the crown of his erection against my entrance and takes me in one, hard thrust.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream, my back arching high off the bed as pure, uninhibited pleasure roils through me. He pulls back and slams into me, again and again, hard and quick, setting the rhythm for each pulse of the orgasm he’s determined to give me. I cry out his name, scream, and moan without any regard to the other people in the house, though I know deep down no one can actually hear us. And each gasp and feral sound of want he draws out of me only seems to make him more and more determined. His hands grip me with enough force to leave behind dime sized bruises. My scalp burns from where his fingers have wrapped too tightly around my hair. My lips are swollen from his mouth and my nipples throb from his teeth. But all of that is the perfect foil to the fiery pleasure mounting higher and higher with every passing second.

“Christian!” I scream. “Oh, please…”

“Please what, Anastasia?”

“I need to come.”

“Do you?” He pulls my leg up over his shoulder, wraps his fingers around my throat for leverage, and pistons deeper into me, testing my limits. I feel tight and swollen around him, my lips and walls quivering with the effort it takes for me not to explode, and the pleasure he draws from it is obvious on his face. “God, you feel fucking incredible.”

“Please!”

“You want to come, baby?”

“Yes! Yes! God, yes!”

“Who owns your orgasms?”

“You. Take me, Christian. Use me. I’m yours.”

He growls and leans over, his now naked chest pressing into mine and his lips brushing right up against my ear. “Scream my name when you come, and make me believe you really fucking mean it.”

He doesn’t have to wait long. He shifts so that the angle with which he moves against me both hits that perfect spot inside of me and rubs my clit against his skin. Two more thrusts, and I dissolve into oblivion.

“Christian! Oh, fuck! CHRISTIAN!”

It’s mind shattering. My orgasm wraps around me like a python, tighter and tighter with every pulse, winding me up, making my toes curl, and then everything releases all at once in a fantastic supernova. I pant desperately, incoherent versions of his name continually bubbling from my lips. My body shakes and convulses so violently he has to hold my hips down as he fucks me through the quivering pleasure. It lasts forever, and he never relents. By the time I finally come down, my skin is slick with sweat and every part of me feels like it’s been turned to jello.

“Beautiful,” he whispers, looking at me now as though something cosmic has shifted and now the world is perfect. He changes rhythm, his thrusts more erratic and sloppy the closer he gets to his own release. I can see his jaw tighten as he chases his orgasm, see the gray in his eyes darken, the muscles in his arms start to shake. He’s there. Right there. Any second…

“Red!”

Everything stops in an instant. One second, I’m full of him, the next second I’m left without. All traces of his weight on my body vanish.

Shit.

“Baby,” he says, his eyes moving wildly to each of mine as he quickly reaches up and untangles the restraints around my hands. Gone is every ounce of the unruly passion that had burned behind his eyes, leaving only concern in its absence. “What happened? Did I hurt you?”

“No,” I reply, voice shaking. “I just… I-I–”

“Hey.” He nestles up against my side, but his arms don’t wind around me like I expect. He doesn’t nuzzle me, even though his face is pressed against my hair. He’s as still as a statue, waiting for me to give him permission to do more. My breathing comes in harsh, wild pants, different from how they were when he made me come.

“I-I’m sorry,” I whisper, and he sits up.

“Don’t ever apologize for using your safeword, Anastasia. I never want you to be ashamed of that word. It’s yours to use however and whenever you want to.”

“I know. But you were…” I take a breath, realizing I’m about to start apologizing again. “I know.”

“What happened?”

“I just… I needed my hands back.”

“Was it too tight?”

“Yeah. I-I guess. I don’t know. Normally, I like it tight…”

“But not tonight.” he exhales and shakes his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you like that after the day you’ve had.” I nod, and he settles back down into the bed behind me again. “Are you ready for me to hold you?”

“Always.” I can’t help it, I want to apologize again, but instead I say, “I love you, Christian.”

“I love you too, Anastasia.”  

His arms snake around me, and he pulls my whole body flush against his until it feels like we’ve melded together. Eventually, my heart rate slows, my breathing evens out, and my eyelids start to droop. A welcome sense of calm crosses over me, seeping into each and every one of my pores and relaxing away all of the stress and anxiety of the past two days.

Because he stopped.

No matter how close he was, he stopped when I asked him to.

One word, and it was over.

 

That night, my dreams are free of smoke and fire and the cold voice of Andrew Lincoln.

 

Chapter 16

oysters_100count_768x650_ad5118ca-dfb6-4772-a91f-fe160775387c_2048x

September 2011

“Christian, I think it’s time we start considering that Ana might need REAL help. This isn’t healthy,” Carrick says.

“Don’t you think I’ve tried? I’ve flown in doctors from around the world, I’ve shielded her from the news and every mention of what happened. Hell, I’ve asked her to just… go see Flynn every single day since we left Escala, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s not ready.” There’s a soft thud as, I imagine, Christian lets his head fall against the closed door between us. He should be at work now. I’ve heard through the bits of phone conversations he’s had with Ros and Welch as he paced the floor, thinking I was asleep, that GEH is launching a new, top secret energy project that he expects will take up most of his time until it’s complete. But he can’t go to work. He can’t leave the house. Because he won’t leave me.

I curl my fingers around the blankets that cover his childhood bed and pull them up over the top of my head, trying to block out their voices.

“She’s not eating, Son,” Carrick continues. “She’s not sleeping. She’s not taking care of herself…”

“She showered on her own this morning. That’s progress.”

“It’s been six weeks, a shower shouldn’t be a celebration. I think it’s time we thought about sending her to some kind of treatment facility. Somewhere beautiful and relaxing where she can get some separation. Find peace. They’re better equipped to deal with this kind of depression.”

“She’s not depressed. She’s terrified. And, sending her away from Calliope would only make her worse.”

“Christian…”

“She just needs more time, Dad. And if that’s what she needs, that’s what she’s going to get. I can take care of her until she’s ready.”

Carrick sighs. “Alright, I’m sorry I brought it up. Your mother is preparing a bottle downstairs. If you’ll get Calliope for me, I’ll take her down.”

I can hear the metallic grind of the knob as it turns, but Christian opens the door the rest of the way and moves across the bedroom in complete silence. The bassinet Calliope has been sleeping in since we moved in with Grace and Carrick is in the corner closest to the bed I’m lying in, and through sound and some other sense that seems to have been heightened in the aftermath of our ordeal with Andrew Lincoln, I know he’s lifting the baby into his arms and carrying her out of the room. Her small, sweet coos disappear with the click of the door closing and it takes everything in me not to call out for her, refuse to let them take her from my side.

My eyes screw tightly closed. ‘Grace is feeding her. She needs to eat. Grace is safe. This house is safe. We are safe.’

I repeat those words in my head over and over again, willing myself to believe them.

“I know you’re not sleeping,” Christian says, making me jump because I thought the room was empty. I take a deep breath to try and calm my system again, to stop the shaking, and pull the blanket off my head so that I can blink up at his worried face.

“How?” My voice is hoarse.

“You’re not screaming.” He takes a deep breath and sits on the bed beside me. His fingers move up into my hair, rubbing gently against my scalp. It feels nice, but I still involuntarily flinch under his touch, just as I have every time he’s touched me in the last six weeks. I know that it hurts him to see me recoil from his hands and I wish I could stop, but I can’t.

‘This house is safe. We are safe.’

“Ana. Baby…”

“Please don’t send me away,” I croak. “I’m trying. I’m really trying.”

“I know. You’re not going anywhere.”

I nod and then curl my bottom lip under my teeth, trying to hide the tremble from him. There’s heat from impending tears blooming in my eyes. “How long am I going to feel like this, Christian?”

“Baby–”

“I can’t stop seeing it. Every time I close my eyes, I see him. I feel him on top of me. No matter how much time passes, I can’t get out.”

“You are out, Ana. You’re right here, with me. Only me.” His voice is thick now too, and when I glance up to look at him again, I can see the pain etched in every crease in his forehead and around his eyes. As difficult as it is for me to simply press on day after day, I can’t imagine how devastating it is for him to see me this way. To watch me unravel over and over again. To be completely and utterly shattered. To know that every time he tries to pick me up and put me back together, I slip through his fingers and break all over again.

I feel weak, and I hate it. I hate what Lincoln has done to me. I hate that, even in death, he holds power over me. Christian, Carrick, Elliot, Kate, and my dad can all tell me that it’s over, that we’ve won and everything is safe now. But this isn’t victory. This, what I’m living right now, is the very definition of defeat.

“I promise you, Anastasia. I’m never going to let anyone hurt you ever again. No matter what it takes, no matter what I have to do, I’m going to keep you safe. I’m going to keep Calliope safe. No one will come for us ever again.”

“How do you do that?” I whisper. “How do you sound so sure?”

“Because I have to. I can’t fail at this again. I won’t.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Christian. You didn’t fail us. He was…”

“Insane, I know. But the holes in my defenses that he exposed will never be left open again. We’re wiser now. Stronger. I am in control, and no one is going to take that from me again. You’re safe, Ana. Please, let me try to help you.”

The pleading hope that looks down on me is nearly enough to break me in two.

“I love you, Christian,” I tell him, my voice cracking. I reach up and place a hand on his cheek. His eyes close as he leans into my touch and the look of relief that flashes briefly across his face makes my heart beat the first solid thump I’ve felt in weeks. But the warm, wholeness I feel pressing my fingers into his scruff fades as quickly as it came, changing instead into something cold and sharp. My hand recoils and I may as well have slapped him for the look of pain that instantly replaces his moment of serenity. “I just… can’t. Not yet. And I’m sorry. I wish I had your strength. I wish I felt any ounce of the control you do, but I don’t.”

He takes a deep breath through his nose and looks down at me for a long time, like he’s trying to solve a puzzle, but is continually coming up short. “What if…? I mean, maybe you can.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know how you’re feeling, Ana. I know that it feels like no one could ever understand, but I do. I spent a long time feeling like everything around me was out of my control. Like life was happening to you and you were helpless to stop it. I can… I can help you change that. I can help you take back control.” I can’t help but notice the caution in his voice, like he’s not sure he should really do what he’s suggesting. But the lure of his promise is too much to resist.

“Show me.”

He takes another deep breath in preparation and then nods. Slowly, his hands peel the comforter away from my body and the cold air of the room brings goosebumps to the surface of my skin. I want to pull them back. There’s a kind of vulnerability that comes from being exposed that I want to fight against on an instinctual level, but I force myself to bear it. The promise of respite from this constant fear is too strong.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he says, gruffly now. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know.”

His fingers release the blankets still clutched in his hand, and he moves his palms over my legs. My muscles tense, and every sinew of my body aches to pull away, but I don’t. I stare down at his hands, determined, and watch them trace the curves of my body.

“These are my hands,” Christian says. “Not his. Not anyone else’s. You belong to me, Anastasia, and these are the only hands that will ever touch you again.”

I nod and continue to watch the drag of his fingers over my skin. For months, the parts of me that Andrew Lincoln had groped and molested seem to burn with the imprint of his touch. But when Christian’s hands sweep over them, tender and full of his love, that burn is extinguished for the first time. I feel like he’s swiping an analgesic over my limbs, numbing the guilt and the pain. When he touches me the memory of all other touch dissipates, and the relief is like being able to breathe freely for the first time in months.

“You are mine, Ana,” he repeats.

“Yours,” I whisper back.

“You are safe.”

“Safe.”

His hands move up my body, over my hip, my side, my breast, until his hands cradle either side of my face. Again, he pauses to look deep into my eyes and like a bear awakening from a long winter hibernation, I feel the first stirrings of heat between my legs.

“Christian.”

His hands tighten around the roots of my hair, making me gasp, and then he leans down to kiss me. A real kiss, not the hesitant press of lips I’ve come to know over the past few weeks that always breaks away in rejection and hurt. His mouth is demanding against mine, taking from me what he wants but maintaining an expression of love that cannot be denied. A part of me realizes that his power should frighten me. In the aftermath of everything I’ve experienced, I should cower under his insistent, commanding touch. I should fear the pain and humiliation that is sure to follow, that I felt when Andrew Lincoln touched me. But Christian’s dominance doesn’t frighten me. His certainty, his strength, and his love reassure me in a way that’s different than it’s felt in the past. Somehow, his sovereignty in this moment is also mine. It’s not something I can explain, even to myself, it’s something I can only feel.

“Tell me your safeword,” he growls against my mouth.

“Red,” I pant back.

“Say that word, and I’ll stop. Whether it’s pain or pleasure, all you have to do is use that word, and everything will end. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” And it’s in that moment that I truly do. Because I think of Christian as the strongest man in the world. The most powerful. The most influential. And for all that he controls, I’m the one who can stop him. Only me.

That’s power. True power. And it’s mine.

“Yes, what?” he asks, voice low and dark.

“Yes, Sir.” And with that, I’m flipped around and his hand comes down hard on my behind, the pain searing all memory of foreign touch from my body. When Christian climbs onto the bed behind me, kneeling between my legs and working quickly to get his belt open, I’m a clean slate. I’m brand new again. Stronger. More Sure. Put back together again by his strength and the power he lets me wield through the guise of submission.

 

“Mrs. Grey?”

I start and blink away the memory, before turning to look at my CPO standing in the doorway to my office. Even through my exhausted state, I can see the hesitance in his eyes. Like he’s unsure whether or not to bother me. I’d attempted to go back to bed once Christian left for work this morning and I’d made sure Calliope was fed and taken care of, but the moment my eyes closed, the nightmares returned, filled with fire and smoke and the whisper of Andrew Lincoln. So, I dragged my tired body into the shower, dressed, and came into work, intent on occupying my mind with chapter submissions and whatever I’m going to say to Scott about Phoenix. Unfortunately, my capacity for critical thinking after my long, sleepless night isn’t as keen as my will. The speech I’ve prepared to convince him feels empty of the conviction that I feel so potently, I’m willing to put my career on the line for it.

“Yes, Woods?” I yawn.

He closes the door and steps into my office, settling down into the chair on the other side of my desk and leaning towards me. “Is there something I can get for you, Ana? Coffee? Food, maybe?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you.” I offer him a weak smile that doesn’t fool him for a second, then sigh. “Did you speak to Andrea?”

“Yeah, he’s been in a meeting with his lawyers and PR team all morning.”

I fight not to roll my eyes. “Yeah, I had about seven different text messages from Jacqueline when I got out of the shower asking me to post a picture of Calliope on PixC to distract from all the media coverage about GEH right now.”

“Which you ignored?”

“Obviously. But I’ve got lots of pictures of Christian and I from my last year at Harvard that I thought would be just as distracting. I’m about six months pregnant in the one I posted, so maybe someone won’t realize it’s old and a new rumor will be started and all this other stuff will be swept under the rug.”

“Do you want it to be?” Woods stares at me, but not as though he’s expecting an answer. His tone and the careful look of empathy behind his eyes tells me he already knows what I want to say. I swallow my doubts and turn away from him. “Look, Ana. Taylor told me when I was assigned to your service that Mr. Grey had been clear about not wanting another CPO to get close to you. That’s why I’ve tried to keep you at arm’s length and stay professional. But… I’m here if you want to talk. I was there yesterday. I saw it. I know how hard that must have been for you.”

I look down at my hands in my lap, blinking away the hot moisture pooling over my lower lids. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” he concedes. “But I’m here if you do.”

“Thanks… Evan.”

“My pleasure, Ana.” He gets out of his chair and grins at me, trying to be reassuring, I think. It’s a different side of him, something I haven’t seen before. I never thought I’d find another CPO like Luke Sawyer, but there’s something genuine his concern, in the almost avuncular gleam in his eyes, that soothes the sense of unease inside of me just a fraction. I smile as he turns to go, but before he exits my office completely, he stops and faces me again.

“He’s doing a press conference this evening.”

“What? Why?” Woods raises an eyebrow, an indication that I should already know. And, after a few seconds thought, I do. By addressing the media himself, he can try to re-shape the narrative. He can express his regret over what happened and reassure the public of all the steps they’re taking to make sure none of this happens again. Offense as the best defense.

“Should I go?” I ask, but Woods just shrugs.

“If you want. But if you don’t, it’s going to be televised.”

Of course it is.

My phone beeps on my desk, interrupting my internal argument over supporting my husband publicly and disagreeing with him privately, and Abby’s voice comes through the speaker.

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

Shit.

“Thank you, Abby.” I look up at Woods, tell him that I’ll let him know what I decide before this afternoon, and pick up the receiver on the phone. “Hi, Scott.”

“Ana, hey. Are you alright?”

My heart sinks. I guess, if he’s heard about it in New York, yesterday’s incident is now national news. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Is Grey…?”

“He’s fine. Everyone was fine.”

He lets out a sigh of relief that sounds surprisingly real through the phone. “Good. Carmen said this morning she wanted to send you flowers or something, but we weren’t sure if you’d be in the office today, or even if something like that would be welcome.”

“I appreciate the thought, but we’re fine. My immediate concern is what book we’re going to put up for Carmen tomorrow.”

“Really?”

My brows knit together. “Of course. I’m in the office, I’d like to my job.”

“Well, when I saw the news coverage last night, I assumed you’d be out for a few days. I only called because Stevens said you were in today and I was surprised.”

“You talked to Stevens? Why?”

“To let him know that Daves’ contract was sent out this morning. I expect it to be signed and returned by end of business today.”

“What?!” Angry heat rises inside of me, scorching away the exhaustion and dread lingering in my bones. “You approved The Black Rose?”

“Like I said, Ana… I thought you were going to be out.”

“Well, I’m not! I’m here, fully prepared to talk to you about why that very decision absolutely cannot be allowed to happen. Jesus, Scott…” My teeth clench as my continually growing anger renders me speechless.

“Look, I know you don’t agree, and that’s a shame, but this was always the right decision, Ana. Daves is a proven best seller, this is going to float you through the rest of the fiscal year. And once his sales make the right impact on our bottom line, you can go ahead with that other title you want.”

If they make the right impact,” I argue, “which I have serious doubts over, that impact won’t be felt for a year. Maybe more. You expect me to ask my author to sit around for that long, praying this novel doesn’t tank and destroy her chances at being published?”

“I’m sorry, Ana. It’s done.”

“And Carmen just approved this, without even discussing it with me?”

He goes on the defensive. “Like I said, we didn’t think you would be in.”

“Do you think cellphones only work inside this building?”

“I thought you probably had more important things to worry about yesterday than getting whatever book you liked best that week to the top of the frontlist. Decisions had to be made and you left the office early. You’re welcome for running your branch while you were gone, by the way.”

I can’t even dignify that with a response. I pull the phone away from my ear, slam it back down on the receiver, and turn back to my computer. On the screen is an open document I’ve used to create an outline of all of the research I’ve done on the current sales climate and competing titles, which I’d planned to go over with Scott on that call. Instead, I exit out and pull up my email.

 

From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Resignation

Date: April 3rd, 2012, 11:45 AM

To: Carmen Gallagher

Dear Ms. Gallagher,

Please let this letter serve as notification of my resignation from Greenwich Small Press, effective immediately. There is nothing I, nor anyone else, can do to save your publishing house as long as that motherfucking….

 

I stop, take a breath, then let my head fall into my hands. I’m well within my rights to resign. How can I be expected to do what’s asked of me when every time I try to make a change, I’m blocked by the old guard? Scott can preach about how this is the right move until he’s blue in the face but it’s my name that’s on the line here. My credibility. And if this release fails… no, when this release fails, all the blame is going to fall on me.

But I’m not a quitter.

The only thing I’ve ever walked away from my entire life ended up being one my biggest regrets. I’ve spent years now putting what I broke that day back together. And I doubt Scott or Carmen will be as forgiving of me leaving as Christian was. I don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to be seen as the person who throws their hands in the air in defeat every time something gets too difficult. I don’t want to be the girl who things happen to, where everything is outside of my control. This is a shitty hand, but I’m not a novice to this game.

With stubborn determination, I turn for my bag and pull out the beaten up copy of The Black Rose manuscript contained inside. The text on the page seems to mock me as I scan each chapter, picking up mistakes and lazy writing from even just a cursory glance. But this is now my cross to bear. The manuscript has been approved, the contract has been sent, and now I have to find a way to turn this into something remarkable. Or I have to leave.

Maybe it’s a side effect of spending too much time with people named Grey, but, despite how hopeless I feel this manuscript really is, I decide then and there that I’m not going to let it defeat me. I’m not going to throw away the work I’ve put in to fill this seat. Carmen told me when I was hired that she was essentially asking for a miracle, now it’s time for me to produce.

I press my finger into the zero on my phone to page reception.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?” Penny responds.

“Penny, can you get Hailey Lewis on the line for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Our conversation is brief. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I’ve failed her over the phone. So, instead, I invite her to lunch. The excitement in her voice stabs at my heart as we agree on a time and place, and when I hang up I feel a crushing sense of disappointment warring with my newfound determination. But my path is set now, thanks to Scott, and the only way to go from here is forward.

I gather my things and make my way out of the office to meet Hailey for lunch, texting on my phone as I go. It’s only after I’ve slipped my phone back into my bag and glanced up to find Woods that I notice the shift in the atmosphere amongst my employees. Stevens is leaning far back in his chair, his feet kicked up on his desk and a gloating smile plastered on his face. Those in his close proximity stare at him with admiration, except for Jacki, who shakes her head and focuses her attention on her own screen. Clearly, the word is out. Scott won, and I lost.

“Stevens,” I say sharply, He blinks and glances lazily in my direction, as if the very act of turning to face me is a great expenditure of effort.

“Ana?”

“I just wanted to congratulate you on how hard you fought for your author. It’s that kind of tenacity that the people who put their careers in our hands every day expect from us. Well done.”

He laughs, gloating again. “Sure.”

“And I’ve decided, since you are so sure that this is the novel that’s going to carry us through the rest of the fiscal year and keep us from closing our doors come Christmas time, that I’m going to personally see to its success.”

The smug look on his face vanishes immediately. “What?”

“You won’t be needed going forward.” I give him a saccharine smile. “I’ll take it from here.”

“That’s my commission,” he argues.

“No, it was your commission. Now, this project is moving in a different direction. A direction that does not include you.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Oh, yes I can. You see, I think you’re under the impression that I’m not your boss, but I am. It is my name on that door and as long as that is true, we’re going to do things my way. Try to go over my head to Wallace again, and you won’t be missing out on commissions, you’ll be packing your things.”

His face grows red as his mouth drops open in shock, and his eyes flit around the room as though he’s looking for support from his fellow co-workers. But no one comes to his defense. Eight pairs of eyes turn to their computers, leaving him alone and dumbfounded.

“Oh,” I continue, stopping on my way out the door to face him again. “And it’s Mrs. Grey.”

A series of disjointed sounds escape his lips as he attempts, and fails, to make a coherent argument, but I don’t stay to see if he regains his composure. I have a lunch appointment. So, I motion for Woods to follow, turn on my heel, and walk through the doors

Shaker + Spear is an upscale seafood restaurant located in a hotel a few blocks from my office. It’s quiet and not too busy, the perfect atmosphere for a meeting. I’m the first to arrive and I wait at the table to for Hailey to join me with a cold glass of Chardonnay, one of Christian’s favorites. The taste reminds me of him, and the memory of a kiss that I can’t quite place in time, so I pick up my phone and send him a text.

Thinking of you. I hope everything is going well today.

Is that what I hope, though? It’s a question that’s been running through my mind all day. I know Christian. I know that this investigation being launched by the city and all of the negative media coverage is getting to him. He wouldn’t have gone into the office today if he wasn’t worried that his absence would derail everything he’s spent the last half a year trying to build. Not after seeing me in the aftermath. For the past seven months he’s heard nothing but no. Elliot, Ros, experts brought in from NASA and research groups all over the world have all told him this dream he has of creating sustainable, unlimited energy is impossible. I wanted to be the person that told him yes. I wanted to be the person who believed in him. But after yesterday, after seeing the destruction caused by his intractability and feeling even an iota of the devastation that would plague me forever if I were to lose him, I’m not sure I can be that anymore. I’m not sure that I can stand by his side and give him my full support and faith when I know what’s at risk. Ros worries for the future of GEH. Carrick worries for the sustainability of the city he’s been charged to protect. And I worry for him.

Calliope was in that building.

“Sorry I’m late!”

I’m pulled out of my thoughts by the jolt of the table as Hailey crashes down into the chair across from me. Her eyes are wide with excitement, her smile stretched wide and open across her face. There is no hint of doubt in her expression, no clue that I’m about to crush her dreams.

“You’re not late,” I assure her. “I was early. Shall we order an appetizer? You’re going to die over their oysters.”

“Yum!” she chirps, then picks up her menu. We chat until the food arrives, or rather, she chats and I listen intently. I haven’t had a conversation with her that’s ever lasted more than a few minutes, and I’m surprised to find how light and fun she is. Like Kate was when we first went to Harvard. I thought, after reading her novel, that I knew her on a level more personal than idle conversation. I imagined her to be serious. Wise beyond her years. Introspective and deeply observational. Discovering her almost childlike persona actually has me far more impressed with her writing ability than I was before. It has me aching to further explore her potential, to learn what else lies below the surface of this seemingly ordinary young woman.

“I haven’t gotten my contract by the way,” she says, as if it were simply a continuation of her previous thought. “You said you were going to send it last week, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

I frown. “Yeah, that’s why I asked you here today.”

“Oh?”

“Hailey…” I pause, unsure how to break this news to her without breaking her heart. “I need you to know that I think you’re incredible.”

Her face falls. “Oh no…”

“I tried everything I could, but the stars just wouldn’t align. It was premature for me to call you and make you an offer, and I’m sorry about that. I was confident that the people above me would see everything I see in you, but the timing just wasn’t right. I can make you a future offer, for next year maybe, but…” My words cut off, and she finishes for me.

“But I’d have to wait.”

“And I don’t think you should have to. Especially because anything I offer you for the future can’t be guaranteed. This is about your work, your talent, and your moment. I don’t want to take that away from you. I believe in your work. I believe that it’s going to do good things for you and for the countless people who will read your words and find hope. That kind of power shouldn’t be caught up in something as mundane as budgeting considerations and bureaucratic power plays.”

“So what do I do?”

“Get a lawyer. Someone who will look out for your interests above everything else. Someone who can help you navigate offers being made to you and the contracts you’ll be asked to sign. Don’t let anyone push you into publishing before your book is perfect. You only get one shot at a first release, and that release will make or break your entire career. Never settle. You should demand the best editors, best artists, and the best representation. You’re worth it. Phoenix is worth it. You’re going to be big, Hailey. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

She nods. “Okay. So–” She’s interrupted as another woman slides into the seat next to her, drops her bag on the floor by her feet, and picks up a glass of water on the table.

“Alright, alright, I’m here. What’s the big emergency? And I swear to god if the next words that come out of your mouth aren’t, ‘I’ve finished my manuscript and am ready to send it to the editors,’ I’m leaving.”

“What a surprise! Hailey, this is Lydia,” I say, gesturing to my agent with a smile.

“Pleasure,” Lydia replies with an uninterested glance in Hailey’s direction. “Do you have a manuscript for me or not, Ana?”

“I do, just not mine.” She looks taken aback for a moment, but I simply reach for my own bag and rise from my seat. “Lydia, this is Hailey. I think the two of you will get along just fine.”

“What are you talking about?” Lydia replies. “Where’s your manuscript, Ana?”

I wink at her, then turn to leave without another word. Maybe it was unethical. There’s probably some violation of my non-compete, despite how careful I was to not actually pitch Phoenix to Lydia. But it’s what I could live with. She’ll be in good hands. The best hands. With Lydia representing here, she might even get a contract with a big five publisher, and that’s what her talent deserves.

With a new spring in my step, I make my way through the restaurant, deciding to stop at the restroom before I rejoin Woods, who’s waiting for me at the front door. But just before I step into the hallway that leads to the bathrooms, someone large and hulking moves into my path, blocking me.

“Wait,” Luke hisses.

“Luke? What are you doing here?”

“Shh.” He leans against the wall, trying to look casual while still blocking me from sight of the bathrooms. He stays that way for a long moment, and just as I’m about to push him aside for being ridiculous, I find out why.

Alexis Young steps out of the bathroom and pauses just a few feet away from us, scanning the restaurant. Her eyes land on the table where Lydia is still sitting with Hailey, and her face falls with disappointment.

“Shit.” I hear her hiss. Then she storms out of the restaurant and disappears from view.

“Holy fuck,” I breathe in disbelief. “What is she doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Luke says. “She’s following all of you.”

“All of us?”

“You, Mia, Kate, Grey…. She was at the hospital when Kate went into labor, she trails Mia to every one of her ballet rehearsals, and she spends every morning at the coffee shop across the street from your office. I saw her yesterday, at GEH, and she looked… I don’t know, disappointed?”

My heart stops. “Disappointed? In what? That Christian got out? She wants him dead?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been following her for a few weeks now and I can’t derive any kind of motive. I’ve searched her car, but haven’t found any weapons. I’ve tapped her phone, but she’s not getting calls or instructions from anyone. I’ve got her emails and her browsing history on surveillance, but nothing. She just… follows you. Never getting close enough for you to see her, but always so that whoever she’s tailing is in her line of sight.”

“So she’s keeping tabs on us,” I assume. “She’s keeping track of where we are and relaying that information back to someone. Someone from the police department, someone we haven’t uncovered from the conspiracy…” My voice grows more and more shrill with each word, until Luke reaches out to cover my mouth.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I’ll find out. In the meantime, I need you to stay with Woods. No more waiting at the door bullshit.”

A familiar feeling creeps over me, the same feeling that encapsulated my entire life last year. The feeling of knowing that Leila was out there, watching me, waiting for a moment of weakness, and feeling it again makes me nauseous.

“No,” I say firmly. “No, we’re not waiting anymore. Every second she’s out there, Calliope, Mia, Kate… they’re all in danger. And I’m not going to sit idly by and wait for our enemies to make the first move anymore.”

“Ana…”

“You’ll set up a meeting. I don’t care how, I don’t care where. I don’t care if she knows I’m coming or if we have to ambush her, but I’m going to confront her. I’m going to find out what she wants and take care of it before it has the chance to fester into something that will come back and destroy us.”

“You know I can’t do that, Ana. This isn’t like Kozlowski or even Harrington. She was Gresham’s submissive, a man we know was dangerous. Who threatened violence against your sister-in-law and who was in the very deepest parts of Lincoln’s circle. This girl could be an actual threat and I’m not going to voluntarily put you in harm’s way.”

“I’m already in harm’s way. As long as she’s out there, she’s a threat, and I will no longer tolerate threats against me or my family. She’s a problem that needs to be taken care of and I will do that with or without your help.”

“Ana–”

“Are you going to get me a meeting, or not?”

His eyes dart between mine, obviously looking for some kind of hesitation he can prey on to change my mind, so I ensure he doesn’t find any. I purposefully exude every ounce of confidence I feel in my gut, and eventually he sighs.

“It’ll take me a few days. Maybe weeks. Once I find a way to do this so that you’re safe, then we’ll talk about setting up a meeting.”

“Good.” I lean forward, feeling slightly guilty for speaking to my best friend the way I just did, and kiss him softly on the cheek. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now get out of here, and stay with your bodyguard, Anastasia. I mean it. I’ll call Taylor.”

“What are you following me too? How do you know how often I’m apart from Woods?”

“If I told you, you’d try to avoid me, and I can’t have that.”

My eyes narrow. “Don’t you have a girlfriend you could be stalking?”

“Nah, she stays where she’s supposed to, unlike someone I know.” He gives me a look that dares me to challenge him, but I don’t. I simply roll my eyes and turn away.

“I’ll be waiting for your call, Lucas,” I say in a sing song voice as I walk away. For a few more steps, I wait for some biting response, but it never comes. He doesn’t say anything. And when I turn to face him again, he’s gone. Disappeared, like a shadow at high noon.

“How does he do that?” I whisper to myself, and then realize, that’s how he keeps track of people. Me. Alexis. He can probably see me now and is having quite the laugh over me looking like an idiot, searching the restaurant to find him. I won’t give him the satisfaction. I turn and head outside, staying half a step in front of Woods the entire way back to the office.

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