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