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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41 thoughts on “Chapter 18

  1. I’m all for birthday parties but what in the world?!? And I am yet to figure out Kim. I understand her position but what is her deal otherwise? Who in the world could Alexis be working for. Everyone is either dead or in jail, right? And what is wrong with Christian? He is completely disregarding Ana’s concerns with parenting. I am more and more frustrated with this story.

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    1. THAT is the problem—not everyone is in jail. Not by a longshot, when you think about it. Yes, Lincoln attempted to get rid of those that knew too much. HOWEVER, all the police officers and guards at the jail that he had on the take were still expected to be necessary for him, so they were never eliminated. ALSO, politicians or their toadies in Seattle that he still expected to use would have gone undiscovered. AND some of them would be the VERY people with the MOST to lose, with Carrick being elected mayor.

      And it is very revealing that Alexis is clearly now monitoring GEH. Obviously, someone wants to find the chinks/defects in Christian’s armor. The division between father and son ALSO HELPS those politicos that went undiscovered, and they are clearly waiting/anticipating a strike against Christian. Or looking for disgruntled employees that don’t buy Christian’s white-washing of the whole explosion.

      And while I get why Ana is tense about Kim, she IS right. Christian is going WAY overboard on the spoiling of Calliope. And YES, giving her everything WILL create an entitled witch similar to the girls that Kate hung out with while being on the outs with Elliot.

      Most importantly, though, Christian and Ana are NOT communicating or else are NOT listening to one another, on MULTIPLE issues now from parenting to safety to Ana’s OWN investigation, which Christian knows NOTHING about.

      AND if Christian was bothered by Ana’s relationship with Sawyer before, HOW do you think he will feel when it all comes out that Ana relied on HIM to investigate everything and plot with rather than Christian. ESPECIALLY when Ana puts herself into NEEDLESS danger, which is something Christian, himself, is currently doing.

      The lack of communication on multiple fronts is really going to come back to bite Christian and Ana. And others caught in the crossfire. But the Alexis thing has me the most concerned right now, ESPECIALLY SINCE ANA INTENDS TO CONFRONT HER ALONE, or just with Sawyer. WHEN SHE DOESN’T even yet know just WHO has employed Alexis. OBVIOUSLY, though, it is someone that knew about Lincoln’s attacks and Christian’s previous vulnerabilities, since Alexis seems to pass her time with powerful, dominant men in the business and political world. VERY troubling. ESPECIALLY now that Christian has backed himself into a corner of HAVING to produce something spectacular for all he has put his company and city through.

      (AND we haven’t even covered Ana’s additional employment woes AND Christian possibly pursuing publishing Hailey, which really WOULD look like corporate sabotage if he followed through. Worrisome.)

      As always, Tara has presented so many potential simmering explosions surrounding Christian and Ana that you have to wonder which one will go off first. AND how it will affect everything ELSE still out there. . . .

      Like

  2. Mr Grey was very naughty today and deserves a very big punishment. The party was perfect but Mia’s old friend has me worried. I can’t imagjne what Sawyer is about to discover. Nicely done and today is my daughters birthday so this was good for me. Brings back memories of her childhood parties.

    Like

  3. Perfect as usual. I’ve been stressing about family troubles caused by my sister in law. You made everything vanish while I experienced that party.

    Like

  4. Some party!!! Maybe the VIP guests will feel it makes up for the “no show” wedding.

    What was the tape Ana and Luke sent to Carrick’s campaign? And why didn’t Ana know about Christian’s new acquisition — her Google alert should have told her. Christian seems to be more aware of what she’s doing at work than she is of what he’s doing.

    I wonder if Elliot will be the one to get Carrick and Christian together again.

    Great chapter without a beta check! Thanks for getting it out today.

    Like

    1. You can read about the tape in the final SSoF outtake. I feel like Ana has just been so busy at work with this book, she hasn’t been paying as much attention to what’s being said online (Especially since she’s decided to move on from the GEH incident) and he hasn’t said anything to her specifically. Christian and Carrick always seems to fall to Elliot, huh? haha

      Thanks for your review!

      Like

  5. Very fancy and over the top party, fitting for their princess. Everything went so well until Luke mentioned Alexis. Wished Ana did not hide it from Christian. They’re back to trust and communications. Even Luke isn’t sure but caved in. Looks more dangerous what they’re pursuing. Was worried Kim might act up. Glad it truly was a special birthday party for Callie. Thank you for staying till late to post this beautiful chapter. It is much appreciated. Thank you, Tara. Xoxo daytona

    Like

  6. Nice Chapter, Tara – and with no Beta. You must still be recuperating from your Parisian adventure with your husband. Thanks for posting this morning.
    Ana will probably turn ‘Black Rose’ around, make it a huge success and have Scott step in to take all the credit. If that happens, maybe she will finally leave.
    You answered several of my questions and gave some smiles with the party and its ‘trimmings.’ Christian certainly has some ‘splaining to do with Ana re the pony. Nice touch with the pink ribbon braids, as well…He does not miss a thing. Hope they had a videographer capture it all for Calliope to enjoy when she is older.
    Adorable that Calliope did not allow Mama’s second kiss from Dada. And, it appears she is not ready to be kissing cousins with Kennedy as yet, either. It will be sweet when she does accept her and gets possessive of her cousin, too.
    Most anxious to hear more about the Alexis situation, especially since she is pretty much sticking to GEH stalking. Christian is bound to go ballistic when he finds out all that Ana has been up to – including whatever that tape is (please reveal) that Ana sent to Carrick’s campaign, And, especially,with Luke! Luke will have a long way to go to gain Taylor’s trust again when he learns all he was doing behind Taylor’s back.
    Ellen

    Like

  7. Such a sweet Chapter. I love it. I want to know who Alexis is working for and why she’s following Christian and Ana. What is her deal?

    Kim…UGH!!! I am so glad she kept her dumb, judgmental mouth closed. What is up with her? I am tired of her and ready for Ana to put her in her place and for Ray to kick her to the curb. I wonder if she’s is so negatively vocal, about Calliope/Christian/Ana, when it’s just her and Ray? I don’t like her.

    Another Great Chapter.

    Like

  8. Hey Tara! Loved the update and I’m so intrigued to see where you take this story! 🙂 Monday’s are my fave day of the week when I know you’re updating! I do have one small question. As I re-read your story summary for the Final Shade, I wanted to ask if the “one fateful night” that is described is referring to what happened with Linc (in book 3) or if that is something you will cover in this last book. I’m certainly not asking for a plot teaser but just trying to understand your intentions!

    Thanks so much!

    >

    Like

    1. The one fateful night is the night with Linc. I know a lot of people are ready to move on, and that really sucks, because this entire story is Ana’s journey to healing from that night. POTENTIAL SPOILER: The dry cleaner from chapter 3 will not be her only victim in her quest to protect her family. In fact– she has a new target now. Alexis. And there are more to come.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, Alexis is obviously not doing this on her own volition—someone has put her up to watching the Grey clan again. So someone ELSE out there obviously knows what Alexis was tasked with doing before under Gresham, who was in turn under Lincoln’s orders.

        I don’t have any sympathy for Alexis at this time, though, we still don’t know her full background. Christian tried to help ALL the women from Elena’s club, but it seems Alexis was still under Gresham (in every sense of the word) at that time.

        We just don’t know WHY Alexis is doing this. At one point, she seemed to be Mia’s actual friend, although Alexis later easily exploited that fact for Lincoln. We just don’t know what he and Gresham had on Alexis.

        Sadly, for Alexis to still be roped into all this, I feel there is someone else out there that SHE worries she will lose if she doesn’t do as told. Maybe she has a sister or daughter or significant other out there to protect that goes down if she goes down. AND if she is forced into a corner, ESPECIALLY by Ana, then A LOT could go wrong.

        I’ll say it again—it is foolhardy for Ana to confront Alexis alone. Lincoln’s whole mode of operation was to ALWAYS have something (blackmail/extortion) on his victims AND to make sure that someone ELSE was monitoring the would-be watchers. Lincoln’s death leaves a power vacuum that could be filled by someone else that knew his toadies or worked with them and knew the leverage that he used over them.

        There is more to Alexis then we know, and Ana is walking into the situation utterly without the full story or information OR any further protection than Sawyer. And Sawyer has his hands full with watching Ana and Alexis—he can’t be surveying the scene for still OTHERS that may be watching the encounter.

        WHY do I assume the Alexis thing is going to go badly wrong? AND you can see how Christian does NOT trust Sawyer’s intentions around Ana, even now. There is that ultimate insecurity from Christian about keeping Ana, deep down, that Sawyer always triggers. So I can only imagine what Christian will do when he finds out what Ana and Sawyer are doing behind his back.

        Like

  9. I am confused. Christian and Ana seems to be more comunicated than ever and at the same time they don’t trust in each other: that’s the true. Christian doesn’t tell her his things of work in order not to worry her and Ana doesn’t want Christian to know what she is trying to do to protect her family. And then that little things about disregard each other feelings (the pony, some decisions…), they should comunicate more!

    The fact is that people in real life keep their problems to themselves, but that cost them their trust.

    I really think that in order to overcome the things that happened the year before, one of the fears that they must supress is another child. Both of them are worried because of their last pregnancy and all the consequences, but I believe that them shouldn’t think that way and forget all that experiences that Lincoln messed up and keep them from keep going.

    I hope I expressed myself ok. It seems more dificult to write in English being in a Holiday and not being my native language.

    Take care Tara! 💖

    Like

  10. Great chapter. Christian would go over the top like that but Ana better establish it was a one time event. Not until her sweet 16 will a huge party be mentioned again.
    Hopefully Ana and Luke will take care when finding out what is going on and not get on Christian’s and Taylor’s bad side mean while.
    Kim I’m really not sure???
    Can’t wait for more. Thank you

    Like

  11. I don’t like kim. Too sinister. Envious. Yes Christian goes overboard with his daughter. Yes it will likely bite him in the ass. But as a parent who often does the same, can you blame him. Ultimately, it’s none of her business. It’s up to Anastasia to shut that down and be the heavy if it continues to get out of control.

    Like

  12. We had a smash cake for my one-year-old nephew last Saturday! He was indeed confused. Ignored the gifts completely! Callie’s party was really over the top. London Fog French coat. A pony! Ack! I wonder if Kim felt neglected because Ray’s gift was an old book of Ana’s. Kim will never share that past with Ray. And perhaps never have a family with Ray. Or a billion dollars.
    I understand that it is impossible to tell your mate simply everything, in particular about your daily work. However, the secrets Ana, and Luke, are keeping will no doubt come back and hurt a whole lot of people.
    Ana should send Callie back to GEH daycare. It would help Christian chill like it apparently used to.

    Tara, I like the daily minutia of the Grey Family’s lives. Your story; your timeframe.

    Like

    1. Has Calliope been pulled from the GEH daycare or has Christian simply moved to the GEH offsite where the experiments are going on and so not in the same building as Calliope? I had that same question myself, as it would seem that Andrea and Ros could still see Calliope if she were at the GEH daycare. Ana may not have sent her back and just left her with the nanny at the house. And is that temporary or permanent? Is that something ELSE that Christian and Ana haven’t really discussed?

      (But that WAS a cute little insight to Christian —how Ros and Andrea knew to recruit Calliope from daycare whenever Christian was being too mean to the other employees! And how a few moments with his daughter were all Christian needed to play nice for the rest of the day!)

      Like

  13. I really want to know what Ana and Christian think about having another baby I already know how grace feels lol but seriously I feel and might want to have another baby just not right now she not really in a healthy headspace yet and she knows that and I also feel like she may be scared and a little traumatized you know with how calli was born and I don’t know if Christian is scared because of that too or if he really just doesn’t want more kids and im also curious if Christian will stop being suspicious of like and anas relationship but great happy chapter

    Like

  14. Taraaaaaaa!!! Your the man or the woman!!!!!👍👊👊🤘 Whatever… What I mean is YOUR AWESOME!!!! I read the last chapter of stronger and I can’t believe a single sentence as “some of us have different defination” can have such hudden meaning. Also Ana ducking her head and focusing on her food!!!!!
    Amazing *clapping and whooping🙌🙌🙌 *
    As for christian I declare a best daddy award!!😙😁😙😁
    Now 😔😔on to more serious issues 😔 Ana and Luke?? Christian’s continuous suspicion is not helping things. And I fear they might actually make him believe or at least like might lie to to trying to do things just to make Christian in the dark.
    Etsub from Ethiopia

    Like

  15. loved, but…..a horse? first thing I thought of was Gone with the Wind, and Rhett buying their little girl a horse………..so, Is Ana mad about it? I wonder……..maybe she will ‘punish’ him in the bedroom………..

    Like

  16. I thought about “gone with the wind” also, when I read that CG got Callie a pony. The Pink in the horse braids almost made me enjoy his Daddy gift, but oh boy, ……a Pony? Really? LOL, I was so with Ana at that moment.

    Best line of the chapter for me: “William Howard Taft”
    My God, I LOVE Elliott, just freaking love him.

    I, for one, have not forgot the trauma that these two went through at the hands of Linc in the last book. That kind of stuff is never truly forgotten. I know there are visible things that won’t let Ana past that either. CG was shot- then lost a kidney. There has to be scars from that on his otherwise perfect torso. That can’t be easy for Ana to look past. It is a constant reminder of tremendous pain and perceived loss at the time. Ana’s journey has to be hard- and far from over. I am in this for the long haul!!!

    I like to occasionally go back and read other chapters from the first three books you have wrote. I am reminded of how much trial and pain that these two have gone through. They have been through so much. It is helpful to understand as a reader that CG especially has realized what a “normal” relationship is and how much he craves that. There is a powerful statement that lends support to that in this very chapter. CG spent a week making “vanilla” love (Sweet and slow in your words) to Ana, IMO just to make sure she understands that he is not going anywhere and that they are still on the same page when it comes to caring for each other and their needs. It is chapters like this that prepare me as a reader and long time fan of this series that while things may get rocky- I think they are going to be okay.

    While I would love to jump on the wagon about them having another baby….I am holding off. I “feel” that is going to happen, and I want to live in that moment with them. (I hope anyways)

    Please keep including Elliott in your chapters- he is so freaking funny.

    AJM

    Like

    1. Very well said. I do the same thing (re-read old chapters from previous books in the series) and completely agree with you…..these kiddos are going to be ok in the end.

      Allie

      Like

  17. I’m wondering if Alexis Young will tell them anything or even the truth about why she’s been stalking them?

    Christian certainly went way over the top for Callie’s first birthday party. BUT even Ana was surprised by the pony when she was expecting a dog. LOL Although Callie was thrilled. 🙂 At least Christian didn’t eat all the frosting for Callie’s cake, and she just loved it, well that is what eventually made it into her mouth.

    Once all the guests left and they put Callie down to bed it was now time for the Christian and Ana party to begin. 😉

    Like

    1. I question why Ana wants to confront Alexis as well when so little is known behind Alexis’ motivations. I mean, WHY would Alexis be motivated to tell Ana anything? Gresham tried to rape Mia with Elena’s blessings. And this was known to Alexis who passed on to Gresham that Mia had learned his identity. Alexis then was the means to scare Mia thereafter.

      So Alexis sounds like no saint. However, we just don’t know how Alexis became a favored person of Elena and Gresham in the first place or why she remains in someone’s employment to stalk the Grey family. So yes, we need information. But HOW does Ana expect to get that information? Unless she is willing to physically grab Alexis and haul her away to beat the information out of her, I can’t see Alexis admitting to anything.

      IF Alexis were being threatened, herself, however, you could see her trying to appeal to Ana. But if Ana keeps everyone ELSE out of the loop, then this could just end up getting Alexis killed and Ana in a potentially life-threatening situation (again).

      Obviously, SOMEONE has something incredibly important on Alexis. Which makes her and whoever is threatening/working with Alexis dangerous and determined to do ANYTHING to protect themselves. So Ana’s “plan” seems foolhardy at best. Even Sawyer has reservations, BUT Ana has put him in a precarious situation if he even TRIED to tell Taylor (which, by the by, is what I think Sawyer SHOULD do at this point).

      So I’m antsy for the whole Alexis situation (as if my other chapter commentaries don’t give that away!).

      As to the party, I admit that I loved what all Christian did for Calliope. She obviously loved her party and loved her pony. And she IS only 1 year old. But handing Callie everything can only create a sense of entitlement to ANYTHING, whether she has earned it or not. And while I do NOT like Kim calling Calliope a potential little “monster,” the endgame is that Callie will lose her sweetness and be a selfish little dominating witch motivated ONLY by self-gratification. Callie NEEDS boundaries and limits.

      And Christian IS just ignoring Ana’s parenting insights. He wants his daughter to have anything that makes her happy. And while he has the means to give her what she wants, Christian, of all people, should know what happens to people that are taught to value money and means above all else. Christian wants his daughter to have VALUES and morals, which requires parenting and limit-setting. But that is ANOTHER thing that Christian and Ana aren’t communicating about.

      Yes, Ana and Christian have everything down perfectly in the bedroom. They can communicate and reciprocate to one another’s needs flawlessly in there. Everywhere ELSE, however, is a problem for them and WILL be coming back to haunt them soon, undoubtedly.

      (But Christian AND Calliope’s reactions to the cake and frosting was too adorable. And THAT moment was something that Ana had made HERSELF. It didn’t take money, there, to create a perfect family moment.)

      Like

  18. I had to read the last outtake of ASSOF again to refresh my mind. What prompted Carrick to ran for mayor and to win is to clean up city hall and the people responsible to allow the events that happened to Ana and Christian that almost cost their lives and had a lingering effects on them and had showed more on Ana. He felt responsible in protecting them and promised to himself that he would do so. The tape that Ana gave him would incriminate the people that were involved in their harrowing experience at the hands of Lincoln. Is Christian been totally unaware with all the activities of Ana and will he be developing distrust in her relationship with Luke? Can’t hardly blame Christian afterall Ana and Luke had always been close being in Boston all that time too. But Christian always has a way in finding out what Ana is cooking so I have to be aware what he has in his mind. Ana had been too involved with her job and how to forge ahead without being constantly stopped in her progress. It can be disappointing but she is developing a thick skin and will succeed. All this other people like Alexis, Kim, Scott will eventually have a part somewhere in your story. They cannot just be fillers. You always have a way in using people you introduce in these stories so I better be on the lookout with their movements. Thank you very much for the update. How was Paris? Hope you enjoyed the sights and sceneries.

    Like

    1. You know, I actually went back and read the Outtake and it looks like the reference to the tape was edited out, but it is still in the final chapter of ASSOF.

      “The team keeps telling me it is, but I’m concerned that this tape isn’t everything we’re hoping for. The man had an affair, which is terrible, but I’m not convinced it’s enough for Seattle voters to vote out their three term incumbent mayor. We should be focusing more on the systematic corruption he’s turned a blind eye on.”

      Christian shakes his head. “We are, Dad, but believe me when I tell you this is your ace in the hole. It’s not just an affair. He used his position and taxpayer money to keep what he was doing secret. Government funds were spent on hotel rooms, weekend getaways, gifts. I’ve had every PR expert in this city keeping that narrative constant on the airways since the story broke, it’s going to ruin him. Come November, you’re going to be mayor, Dad. Trust me.”

      “You really don’t think this is going to come back and bite us in the ass? I mean, the whole October surprise thing, isn’t it kind of… petty?”

      “That footage wasn’t ours. It was sent to King 5 anonymously.” Carrick gives Christian a suspicious look but he doubles down. “I swear, I really didn’t have anything to do with it. I’m sure it was sent by a concerned citizen who knew you really could do some good after you were elected. People believe in you, Dad.”

      Like

      1. Until this chapter, I had always just taken as a given that Christian had his people follow the ex-mayor around to get the footage. Made sense and would appear to be shades of Christian keeping things from Ana.

        But NOW we learn that it was SAWYER, on Ana’s instructions, that did this. So Ana was ALREADY engaged in her plot to take down the Grey enemies.

        In my wildest imaginings, I had not pictured ANA being behind this. OR that she wouldn’t have told Christian. So that was a shocker I did NOT see coming. No wonder Ana feels she can take on the world—she basically got Carrick the election through her exploits.

        Like

  19. “Unlike simple stress, trauma changes your view of your life and yourself. It shatters your most basic assumptions about yourself and your world — “Life is good,” “I’m safe,” “People are kind,” “I can trust others,” “The future is likely to be good” — and replaces them with feelings like “The world is dangerous,” “I can’t win,” “I can’t trust other people,” or “There’s no hope.”
    ― Mark Goulston MD
    “Sometimes what you see is not real, and the reality is not what you see. Somewhere between both these reasoning resides a fact: where there is a lack of trust and confidence, perception will always differ with reality.”
    ― Ashish Patel

    Like

  20. While I am convinced that Ana will work her magic and make The Black Rose a bestseller, that will only mean that Scott Wallace gets all the glory. I fully admit that I want Scott to get his come-uppance, and that his bad decisions shouldn’t be made workable through Ana. Because as it is, I can’t see Ana ever being able to do what she was hired to do.

    And my heart broke for Ana with her father having attempted previously to try to get through to Ana that she is, in fact, still troubled and traumatized from what happened and not thinking clearly. AND not really getting or accepting the help that she needs to REALLY move forward in the RIGHT way.

    And the key to the Grey family has always seemed to turn on Ana being able to make it right. While Elliot may have pushed Ana towards the reconciliation with Christian, it was ultimately ANA that got Christian to do what HE needed to do to help himself FINALLY let go of Elena’s abuse and influence AND make things right with his family.

    Here, Ana is unable to make things right for everyone else because she is not truly in a healthy place herself. Makes you wonder which comes first, the whole chicken or the egg debate, as Ana actually getting help may be what sets everything ELSE in the right direction OR if someone ELSE (like Elliot or her father) has to trigger Ana to OPEN UP about everything and get help before SHE can then get others to move forward.

    Because as it stands now, everyone one of the Grey family members seems to have their OWN individual issues, including Elliot, who is dealing with his newborn. He can’t just concentrate on fixing his father and Christian OR Ana. And JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING, from Carrick’s election to Christian’s project and more, centers around people trying to make the surroundings safer for Ana. Everyone is operating around their guilt, trauma, and feeling responsible rather than working TOGETHER to heal themselves.

    So SOMETHING will undoubtedly trigger the domino fall, because in the end, it is all inter-related. Scary thought, because you wonder what will start the crisis. Somehow, my money is on Ana, particularly with everything brewing to a boiling point in her life.

    Like

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