Chapter 22

50shades

I don’t notice that we’re travelling without security until we’ve reached our destination. The expensive looking sports car Christian helped me into at the hotel didn’t feel out of place despite the fact it could only accommodate two. I guess I assumed our security team would follow us in the SUV, but when we make it to the venue for Daves’ party, no one meets us at the entrance of the building.

“Where are Taylor and Woods?” I ask after we’ve stepped into the elevator and Christian has pressed the button for the rooftop bar.

“We don’t need them,” he says curtly. “You’re with me.”

I stare blankly back at him, unsure of how to react. This is the man who was so concerned about my safety that he’d assigned me a security detail for years without my knowledge. He hired three CPOs to be with me at all times just last year. Some of our worse fights have been over my disregard for their necessity…

And then I remember what he said to me last night.

I can protect you, Anastasia. Better than Sawyer. Better than anyone.

I hang my head, my worst fears confirmed. Nothing was resolved last night after all. We’re not fine.

“Christian, I’m sorry about Luke,” I tell him for the dozenth time. “I really do–”

“Stop,” he interrupts me, keeping his eyes focused on the steadily rising number over the door. “Not here.”

My breath catches, almost as if the chill is enough to freeze the air in my lungs. Nervously, I start to chew on my bottom lip, thinking  about his promise back at the hotel. His darker, kinkier predilections have always excited me. Enticed me. Turned me into a carnal creature not only willing, but actually desperate to do anything and everything for his pleasure. For mine. But as I taste the energy flowing between us, I find that my excitement is overcome by something else.

Anxiety.

“Christian…” I begin, but the moment his name crosses my lips, he’s on me. I feel the wall of the elevator at my back in the same second his lips come crashing down on mine.

“Did you doubt him, Anastasia?” he snarls into my mouth. “When you let him take you away from my security team to confront people who could be our enemies, who could want to hurt you? Did you worry where Woods or Taylor were with him?”

The words are an accusation, but my body is too consumed with his touch to pay any mind to his vaguely threatening tone. He’s planned it that way. He can play my body as adeptly as he plays the piano, and he uses that against me. His teeth pull at my bottom lip too harshly, and when I whimper, he soothes the bite away with a deep, soft kiss. His hands dig into me one second, then massage me the next. The juxtaposition of pain and warm pleasure create a reaction inside of me that I can’t control. My senses are heightened, my skin more sensitive, and the muscles between my legs clench with sweet anticipation. He knows my body better than even I do, and I’m putty in his capable hands.

I take a shaky breath. “You can protect me, I know that.”

“Good.” Soft fingers trail up the side of my arm and tug lightly at the sleeve of my dress. “I’m very aware of what’s under here and I want you to know that I’m thinking about it. I will be, all night. While you schmooze and mingle, I’m going to be standing by your side, holding your hand, and imaging what it’s going to look like later when it’s covered in my come.”

Holy fuck.

The elevator pings and the car slows to a stop. Christian leaves one last, chaste kiss on my lips, then takes my hand as the doors pull open and leads me out into the cool June night, not even giving me a chance to catch my breath.

I press my lips together as we meld into the crowd and try to shake away the kinky, sex-tinged thoughts that seem to fully occupy my mind. It’s difficult. My breasts are bare against my dress, so every slip of the soft fabric caresses my nipples, and the tightness of the straps wrapped around my body feels too much like bondage for me to forget.

Stay focused, Ana. You can do this.

 

The party is beautiful. There’s just enough light to illuminate the trees against the outer perimeter and make navigating the crowd of tables and people manageable. The bar is busy, the music is good, and the city looks down on us from every direction. Daves is standing on a podium near the railing, delivering the speech I listened to him give at least fifty times over the last few days.  

“There she is,” I hear Scott whisper with relief. Christian and I turn in his direction and find him standing off to the far side with Carmen and a few people I don’t recognize, but who I assume work in the New York office. I nod in their direction and as Daves’ speech comes to a close, Christian leads me toward them.

“Carmen,” I say, reaching out to shake her hand first. “Great party.”

“Yeah, it didn’t turn out so bad.” She smiles back, then turns to Christian. “And you brought Grey. I didn’t realize you were in town.”

“Last minute trip,” he replies. “You look great, Carmen. As always.”

“Awh, flattery is not going to make me forget that you stole ‘Sure Connections’ right out from under me this week. That one stung, Christian.”

“Business is business. You know that.”

She sighs, but nods. “So I suppose now that you have connectivity under control, you’ll be expanding your state project off the west coast?”

“Yes, but not with ‘Sure Connections.’ Their technology is slow and outdated. I plan on stripping it’s resources and selling what I can.”

“What? Sell it? You fought me for SC for six weeks, Christian!”

“And you told my wife that I asked you not to hire her. You had to know I wouldn’t let that slide.”

The indignace on Carmen’s face vanishes, replaced by blank shock. Her mouth actually drops open and it takes her several seconds to recover. When she does, her back goes straight and her deep brown eyes turn black. It’s a look I’ve seen before, the carefully controlled sense of power. The CEO. And it’s mirrored on my husband’s face right now.

“What do you want for it?” she asks.

Christian smiles. “You know what I want, Carmen.”

“Not going to happen, Grey.”

“Well…” He shrugs. “Enjoy your weak signal output.” Carmen rolls her eyes and takes a drink from her flute of champagne, while I scramble for a way to erase the animosity building between them.

“Christian, have you met Scott?” I ask, grasping at straws. “He’s my New York counterpart.”

“Yes, I’ve heard,” Christian says. Scott grins and takes his outstretched hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grey. Ana here has told me so much about you, I feel like we’ve already met.” His gaze shifts to me. “You sure are a lucky man.”

“Yes. I am.” Christian takes a step closer to me, wraps his arm around my waist, and kisses my hair. To the casual observer, it might have been an innocent show of affection, but I know better. It’s a claim, which may not fully resonate with Scott, but it does with me. And suddenly my mind is filled with the images he’d conjured back in the elevator. The same images he promised would be going through his mind all night. When I turn to look at him, I can see the promising glimmer in his eyes that tells me he’s kept his word.

“I’m glad Ana was able to drag you out tonight,” Scott continues, oblivious to our silent exchange. “I know how hard it is to get Emily out to these kinds of things. She thinks they’re dull.”

“It’s a party for a book that’s not even out yet,” the woman standing on Scott’s right says. “No one’s even heard of The Black Rose before.”

“But they will,” Scott says, through clenched teeth. “Things have to be built before they blow up.”

The woman shrugs and takes another sip of her drink, looking bored, while Scott takes a deep breath. I look between the two of them with confusion.

“I’m sorry. Do you work at GSP NY?”

“Oh, god no,” Scott answers for her. “This my wife. Emily, this is Anastasia Grey. From Seattle.”

“Wife,” I repeat, hoping the word doesn’t sound as shocked to everyone else as it does to me. She gives me a tight smile and holds out her hand.

“It’s good to put a face to the name,” she says. “Scott talks about you all the time.”

“Does he?” Christian asks.

“Of course,” Scott says. “Ana here has made quite the splash at Greenwich. You should be proud.”

“Very proud. My wife is the most incredible woman I know.” Christian turns to me and brushes my hair from my shoulder. His hand trails down my back, lower and lower… down to what’s his. And with the slight, but noticeable, emphasis he put on the word ‘wife’, I can’t help but think to myself that he might as well have just peed all over me for all his efforts to mark his territory.

“I’m going to get a drink,” he says. “Thirsty?”

His hand begins tracing over my behind, and the fabric of my dress is just thin enough that I can tell the pattern isn’t random. He’s tracing letters. M-I-N-E. Over and over again.

I can’t tell if it’s a declaration, or a promise.

And I can’t tell which of those possibilities it is that’s making my knees feel weak.

“Yes,” I croak, then clear my throat to hide my hoarse response. “Please.”

He smiles. “Don’t wander off.”

I nod, but his eyes stay fixed on Scott as he walks away. Scott smiles back, though I’m not sure if he’s trying to be friendly, or taunting him. Either way, he’s biting off more than he can chew with Christian. I’m still trying to swallow what he’s given me just tonight.

Christian. Swallow. Lingerie. Shit!

Focus, Ana!

I take a deep breath and turn to Carmen, who also watches my husband walk away, though with a different kind of interest.

“I’m sorry about that,” I tell her. “If I had known that you two were… I wouldn’t have brought him.”

She smiles and lets out a small, patient laugh through her nose. “Don’t worry about it, Ana. I knew who you were when I hired you, and despite the optics, Christian and I are actually old friends. He’s ruthless, but so am I. And I know that what goes on between GEH and GC has nothing to do with your value at GSP. In fact, I wanted to offer you my congratulations. I saw your numbers for your branch’s latest release. It’s outstanding.”

I smile. “Thank you. But I have to give the credit to my team. Jacki has worked extraordinarily hard on this project and I think we’re seeing that reflected in sales.”

“Well whatever you’re doing, keep it up. We might just have to bring some Seattle to New York, right Scott?”

“Absolutely.” He tips his glass in my direction and I immediately begin to analyze his tone and body language. Never before has he been able to accept Carmen offering me praise without some sign of bitterness or resentment, but this time… he actually seems genuine. Maybe our talk this afternoon was real. Maybe he really does want to move forward as partners. Maybe I was overreacting back in the office.

Except I can still feel the heat of Christian’s MINE on my behind…

“Here, baby,” Christian says, coming up behind me and offering me a flute of champagne. I take a sip and am surprised. Normally, the champagne at these kind of parties is watered down and dry, but I find that, in this case, I enjoy the crisp flavor as much as the feel of the bubbles tickling my tongue.  

“Delicious. Thank you, my love.”

“Of course.” He pulls me close and lowers the volume of his voice so that only I can hear him. “If I were you, I’d drink that quickly and get another. You’ll need it later.”

“Will I?” I ask, but he doesn’t return my playful tone. His eyes cloud over. “What?”

“Nothing.” He turns me so that his back is to Carmen and Scott, and I’m shielded from their view by his body. “I was just thinking about holding this glass to your nipples and watching them harden through that dress.”

He tilts the glass towards me, but I hold my fingers up to keep the cool glass away from the silk fabric over my breasts. “The scene isn’t supposed to start until after we’ve left. You’re not playing fair, Christian.”

“I never do.” He cocks his head to the side, and blatantly stares down at my chest as if he’s mulling over a complicated decision. “Maybe instead I’d pour champagne over them and clean it away with my tongue…”

“Christian.” Again, the muscles deep inside me clench, and his face breaks into a victorious smile.

“Look at that. It seems I don’t need the glass after all.”

I look down to see the outlines of my hardened nipples through the fabric of my dress, and groan. This damn bra!

“Fuck!” I hiss, and Christian takes my chin in his fingers.

“I don’t want to stay long.” I nod and drain the champagne still in my hand, but when I turn for the bathrooms, he stops me and hands me a small wooden box. “Take this with you.”

“To the bathroom?”

“Yes.” His voice is firm and even though I meant it when I told him the scene hadn’t started yet, I react to the command as if we were already in our a room alone and he had me on my knees.

“Yes, Sir,” I whisper back, then tuck the box into my purse and weave my way through the other guests to the bathroom.

I figure the best bet for my sensitivity problem is to just fill the openings in my bra with tissue paper to create a barrier between my nipples and dress, but the fabric is too thin for even a single layer of tissue to go unnoticed. The bathroom is empty besides me, a miracle for a party this size, so after several minutes deliberation, I do the only other thing I can think of, despite how humiliating it will be if someone walks in. I press the button on the hand dryer, and dip my breasts below the warm bursts of air.

By the grace of god, I get away with it.

Once I’m sure that the dress situation is under control and I’m not going to walk back out into a party filled with Gallagher Corporation execs looking like Jennifer Aniston in a season five episode of Friends, I pull the box from my bag and ease back the hinged lid.

Two silver balls connected by a small, black string lie on a bed of velvet and just the sight of them makes me wish I had a spare pair of panties.

The first time I wore these was on a jet ski in the middle of the sound, and they’d wound me up so tight, I practically dragged Christian to our bedroom to have my way with him. The second time was Paris…

My train of thought stops.

Paris.

God, what I’d give to be in the place now that we were then. Before the lies. Before the hurt. Before I had to wonder what his intentions were when he got me alone. Truthfully, I shouldn’t worry. I know that. He’s never given me reason to worry before and he’s not the one who’s changed here. I have. I’m the one who got us here and I’m going to have to be the one to get us out.

With shaking fingers, I reach into the box and remove the balls. I shouldn’t wear them. I’m already wound up so tightly I could explode, and I still have to get through the rest of this evening before he takes me back to the hotel and fucks me six ways from Sunday. But if we’re going to move forward, he needs tonight. He needs to control me. And this is part of that.

I grip the balls tightly in my hand, and duck into the closest bathroom stall.

 

The party is in full swing when I emerge from the restroom. Daves corners me on my way back to Christian and asks to introduce me to several of his author friends, most of whom express to me over and over again their disbelief that Walter got the Anastasia Steele to represent his title. There are a few critics and journalists in attendance who ask about my next book, but I easily divert their questions back to The Black Rose. By the time I’m able to escape, Scott and Emily have already left, Christian and Carmen have retreated to a table near the bar, and the balls inside of me have done their job so well, I don’t know that I’ll make it back to the car, let alone our hotel room.

“I’m just surprised,” Carmen says as I approach and pick up the extra glass next to my husband. “I didn’t realize you were so passionate about clean energy.”

“I’m passionate about innovation. This isn’t just about clean energy, it’s about unlimited energy. Accomplishing what was previously thought to be impossible.”

“Oh I know your line, Christian. Your media blitzkrieg has made it all the way to New York. You’re really putting in the hours to get people to buy into this stuff.”

“That’s my PR team. This project is so much more expensive than we anticipated and the only way I’m going to be able to continue funding it is if I’m able to get the Mayor and city council to sign off on significant tax breaks. To get that, I need public support.”

“And a father in the Mayor’s office.”

“Ah, if only it were that easy.”

Carmen laughs and takes another drink. “Well, I think it’s a noble idea, but I also think you’re an idiot.”

“Really?”

She nods. “Don’t you realize what will happen if you pull this off? Eliminating the need for combustible fuel will eliminate the need for the corporations who make that their business. The Saudis, Exxon, BP, Halliburton… You prepared to take them on too?”

“I’m not worried about oil companies.”

“Don’t let your confidence in the technology make you a fool, Christian. This won’t be like stealing a tiny fiber optics company from me. These people will come for you, by any means necessary. Just a few years ago, there was a man named Howard Cook who used to run a company out of LA that focused on clean, renewable energy. He even got a patent approved by the USPTO. But right before he was able to start production, he was indicted for fraud and his company was torn apart and sold for pieces. Who do you think paid for the lawyers to investigate him?”

“Sinopec, 2011. And the technology his company patented was bought by Chinese oil barons, who have invested millions into keeping it buried. I know all about Howard Cook. He was clown and I won’t repeat his mistakes.”

“Alright, if you’re sure. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Oh, believe me, Carmen. I’d never accuse you of not offering unsolicited advice.” She laughs, and Christian empties his glass before turning to me. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” I practically beg. Carmen smiles as Christian places his hand on my lower back and, after a brief goodbye, he leads me back through the party towards the elevators. I do a quick scan of the crowd for Walter and find him laughing and toasting before a crowd of admirers. Our eyes meet and I’m able to give him a very proud smile before stepping into the elevator.

The moment the doors close, Christian’s arms wrap around me from behind. “And now…” he says, his low, seductive voice trailing off as he leaves a trail of kisses down the slope of my neck. I hum my pleasure back to him, and push my body into his, relieved to finally be here. The soft touch of his lips and the heat of his breath on my windchilled skin make the ache between my legs unbearable. I no longer feel the chill of the night air, my body is flushed with heat.

“Christian,” I say in a soft, needy breath.

“My love?”

“What were you and Carmen talking about?”

His lips don’t stop as he replies, and his hands continue to move freely over my dress. “The fusion project.”

“I know that. I meant, about people coming after you…”

“No one is coming after us, Anastasia.”

“But that man, the one the oil companies came after?”

“They found proof he was overstating company profits and defrauding investors. That’s not going to happen to me.”

“Just because you haven’t committed fraud doesn’t mean they won’t find another way to come after you.”

“And I’ll be ready.” His hand slides up my stomach to cup my breast and my head lolls back on his shoulder as I’m flooded with endorphins.

“You’d tell me if there was anything to worry about, wouldn’t you?”

He lets out a harsh sigh and his hands fall away from my body. I turn and watch him back into the wall and place his hands on the railing. The lust in his eyes has been extinguished, replaced now with irritation, and I don’t understand why.

“I just want to know,” I tell him. The elevator jolts as it stops on the bottom floor, and once the doors slide open, Christian pushes off the back wall to exit.

“Well there’s nothing to know.”

He stalks past me, leaving me to follow behind in his angry wake. He hands the ticket for our car to the valet and then leans against a pillar to check emails on his phone. He doesn’t even so much as look at me the entire time we wait, and the car is silent after we’ve pulled through the drive and out into Manhattan traffic.

“I wasn’t going to do anything,” I say, staring at my hands. “If that’s what you’re worried about. I told you I was done with all the scheming and I meant it.”

“You really think that’s the part of this that’s driving me crazy? You don’t think I understand going to extremes to protect our family?”

I shake my head with dismay.  “I told you I was sorry about Luke. I shouldn’t have been sneaking around with him behind your back, and I wish I could take that back, but I wasn’t unfaithful to you, Christian. You have to believe me…”

His jaw twitches. “Tell me he’s nothing and all is forgiven.”

“No it won’t, because it would be a lie and you know it.”

“Then pick up your skirt.”

“What?”

“Pick up your fucking skirt, Anastasia.” His eyes flash to me, a menacing warning, and I hurry to reach down for the hem of my dress. My body slides down in the seat so I can lift the fabric up over my hips, leaving my barely there panties exposed.

He reaches down between my legs and presses on my clit through the lace. It moves the silver balls back and forth, and I clench. Another press, and I gasp. He repeats the motion over and over again until I’m soaking wet and ready to come, but just before I do, he hooks his fingers under my panties, reaches inside of me, and pulls the black string so that the balls slide out of me and into his hand.

The promising heat vanishes the second they’re gone.

“Clean these,” he says, dropping them into my lap. I look around for a napkin or handkerchief, but find nothing.

“With what?”

He looks over at me, and his eyes move down to my lips. I swallow and look down at the glistening silver spheres in my hand. He watches intently as I slide the first one into my mouth, tasting myself on the metal. I suck hard and swirl my tongue over the smooth surface, then do it again with the second one.

“Good girl,” Christian praises me as I hand the balls back to him. He tucks them into the pocket on the inside of his tuxedo jacket, and I turn to look through the windows, hoping to see some landmark that will give me an idea how close we are to the hotel where I’ll finally get the release that was just robbed from me.

“Wait… This isn’t the way back to the hotel.”

Christian shakes his head. “No, it isn’t.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” I frown and turn to look out the window at the passing buildings and side streets I’ve never seen before. We drive out of the business district, then the residential areas… Traffic soon thins out until it’s almost non-existent. When we finally pull over and Christian takes the keys out of the ignition, the block we’ve ended up on is completely deserted. It’s not the kind of place I would imagine Christian choosing as a destination. There are no restaurants, hotels, or bars. Not even a dive. Most of the businesses on the block seem to be boarded up, except a bail bondsman a few doors down from where we’re parked, and a pawn shop across the street.

“Don’t move,” Christian tells me.

He climbs out of the car and I turn in my seat so I can watch him walk around to my side. When he opens my door, I take his hand and let him pull me out onto the sidewalk, but while his fingers stay entwined with mine, he doesn’t move. I jump slightly at the sound of the car door slamming behind me, and the resulting echo up the deserted street, while Christian steps close to me, his body only just not touching mine.

“Mmm,” he hums with contentment, sliding his hands over the sides of my neck and up into my hair. I can feel his heat wash over me when he leans down and presses his lips to mine with a warm affection that feels familiar and comforting in contrast to everything that’s happened between us over the last twenty-four hours. I move my hands up over his arms to trace the lines of his biceps, which are stark and impressive under my fingertips even through his jacket. There’s an undeniable, yet dormant strength to every line on his body. A  tantalizing and sensual juxtaposition to the gentle touch of his hands and lips that bring goose bumps to the surface of my skin. “I love you, Anastasia.”

“I love you too,” I breathe back, entranced by the feel of his lips still brushing ever so lightly against mine. He smiles, then takes my hand again and tugs me towards the double doors directly behind us. There’s lettering on the glass that’s too peeled and faded for me to read, and the small entryway inside is flooded in florescent light that highlights the yellowing linoleum floors. We step through one more door that’s heavier and closes with a loud clunk, then make our way to a desk on the other side of the room. There’s a woman sitting there, seemingly so engrossed in whatever she’s typing that she doesn’t even look up as we approach.

“Good evening,” Christian says.

Her eyes move up, but her fingers don’t stop. “Do you have an appointment?”

“Odysseus.” She nods and looks back down at her computer screen again, and while we wait, I find myself pondering Christian’s response. Odysseus. The Greek king whose epic journey to get back to his love after being torn away by war is quite literally the stuff of legends. And Penelope, the wife who remained faithful to her king despite her many suitors. I’m not sure if the comparison is comforting or worrisome.

What is this place?

“Ah, here you are,” the woman says, and instantly her cold, aloof demeanor vanishes. She smiles when she looks up at us and finally pulls her fingers away from her keyboard. “You’ll just go down this hall, through the door at the end, and down the stairs. They’ll take your key there.”

“Thank you,” Christian says, and again, he takes my hand and tugs me away. There’s nothing in the hall he leads me down that offers any clues to where we’re going, but I assume it’s something big when we go through the door and find a hulking man waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs.

“Key,” he grunts. Christian reaches into his pocket, removes an intricate, golden skeleton key, and passes it to the man, who I can only assume is some kind of security or bouncer. He slides the key into the lock on the door, and turns it with a click. Christian moves me in front of him as he opens the door and I take a bracing breath before step inside.

The first thing that hits me is the music. It’s low, but bass heavy. Not something I would associate with anything on the radio, which makes me think Christian hasn’t brought me to a trendy nightclub. The room is fairly dark, illuminated only by different colored strobes and spotlights that seem to create just as many shadows as they eliminate. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, but when they do, I go numb.

I never saw the inside of Kink back in Seattle, but I’ve thought of it enough that my mind has created a whole picture for me. I’d imagined stone walls with wooden furniture meant to restrain a submissive rather than make her comfortable. I thought the room would be lined with devices for torture and pleasure I wouldn’t be able to name. I believed that it would feel skeezy and predatory. The room before me, is none of that.

It could be an upscale lounge. The main floor is set up like a grid. Each seating area makes up a square about ten feet long by ten feet wide, and the smooth, black leather sofas they contain are recessed into the ground. The white stone walkways between each section reflect the lights moving over them well, adding color and a sense of whimsy to the overall ultra modern design. There’s a bar at the back that is illuminated so that it glows like ice. Nothing here seems vastly different from the club I was in the night before, except the people.

Everyone here is in various states of undress. Full suits, pleather bodysuits, lingerie, and several women who are completely nude. In many of the booths, there are people actively having sex while their neighbors carry on conversations over martini’s as if they’ve simply found themselves here with friends after a long day of work and there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on around them at all. There’s one particularly intense orgy taking place off to our right, but when I look away my eyes fall on another couple performing something I imagine to be very painful in front of two enraptured audience members.

“Don’t stare,” Christian whispers into my ear. “Watching is participation and only those who have been invited are allowed to participate.”

“How do you know about this place?”

“You think you’re the only one with Gresham’s phone number?”

I shake my head, grateful to know he didn’t come here with Elena. “No, I guess not. But, you’re not going to… not in front of all these people. Are you?”

“Voyeurism is not my thing, Anastasia. What is under this dress is mine, and mine alone.”

“So, what are we doing here?”

“There are private rooms in the back.”

“Good evening.” We turn and find a woman in a tight black dress smiling at us. Her makeup is overdone, but in a beautiful way. With her black hair piled on top of her head and her exaggerated black eyeliner, she looks like she’s just walked off a photo shoot for a pinup calendar. “Welcome to Sadique. Your room is ready, if you’ll follow me.”

Christian nods, then leans in as the woman turns to lead us past the bar. “Walk behind me.”

I take a step back and fall in place a pace behind him. There’s so much to look at all around me, but I force myself to stare at Christian, or down at our intertwined hands. A hundred questions bounce around my mind as we’re led down a dim hallway lined with doors in the same way as a hotel, but only one seems to stick.

What is he going to do?

“Alright, before you go in, I just have to get a statement of consent from both of you,” our guide tells us. “Do you acknowledge that anything that takes place in this room is fully consensual and that you haven’t been coerced into coming here tonight against your will?”

“Yes,” Christian says first.

“Yes,” I repeat.

“Good. Then I’ll leave this with you.” She hands Christian a key that’s similar to the one he used to gain entry to the club before. “If you need anything, just press the green button by the door and one of our staff members will assist you. Play safe, you two.”

She smiles as she moves past us, but Christian doesn’t wait for the clacking sounds of her heels to disappear up the hallway before he reaches down to unlock the door.

“Ready?” he asks, hand on the knob. I nod through my mounting nerves and hold my breath when he pushes the door open and steps to the side to let me pass.

This room is everything I imagined Kink to be. The walls are deep red instead of stone, but all the tools are in place. The room smells of fresh leather, so I assume everything here is new, but that also means that everything here is at Christian’s disposal. The belts. The whips. The rack of canes. There are metal instruments with sharp edges and clamps that make me cringe with pain just looking at them. Will he use those?

“Make yourself comfortable,” Christian says, walking past me. “There’s a bathroom there if you need it.”

“Are you going to punish me?” I ask, and he stops. He turns back to face me, but his expression is unreadable.

“Yes,” he says at last.

I start to chew my bottom lip. “Are you going to hurt me?”

“Do you think that’s something I would do?”

“I hope not.” The words seem to tremble as they cross my lips, but they have no effect on softening Christian’s expression. If anything, he turns colder. His eyes darken and his body grows stiff. Nervously, I suck my bottom lip beneath my teeth and look at the ground, wondering if my hasty confession will expedite the punishment he’s brought me here to deliver. When he steps towards me, I even jump slightly, but he doesn’t put his hands on me. He moves past me, fishes out the key again, and locks the door. With a sigh of relief, I turn my eyes back to the ground.

And that’s when I feel his touch.

The long fingers of his hand wrap around my arm and yank me back. I gasp as I fall into the door, expecting pain that never really manifests, then cower under him as he pins me to the wall. He grabs onto my jaw and tilts my head up so that I’m forced to look at him, and I see fire burning behind his eyes.

“This is why we’re here,” he growls. “Because you think there is even a possibility think I would hurt you. Because you must believe there is anything in this world that you could think or feel that I wouldn’t understand or that I would despise you for. Because it seems to me that no matter what I say or what I do, you still don’t trust me. You don’t communicate with me. And that’s not going to fly in here.”  I nod, though it’s difficult with his hand still on my face. He must feel that, because in that same instant, his fingers relax, his hand falls to his side, and leans down to press his forehead against mine. “You were unfaithful to me, Anastasia. Not with your body, but with your soul. You gave another man your truth and your fears, and that’s not something I can easily forgive. So, tonight, you’re going to submit to me. You’re going to place your trust in me, and you’re going to make me believe it. I’m not going to ask you not to look at me and I’m not going to ask you to stay silent. I want to hear you. I want you to talk to me, even if you think I’m not going to like what you have to say. And I want that from this moment forward.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Now, do you think I’m going to hurt you?”

“No, Sir.”

“Good. I don’t want to give you pain or humiliation, Anastasia. I want what I always want. Control.”

“I can do that.” I take a deep breath in. “Whatever you want, whatever I can give you, it’s yours. Just take it.”  

“Tell me your safeword.”

I swallow my last bit of trepidation and fortify myself with the love I’ve made him doubt. With the love I know he feels for me, despite the hurt I’ve caused him. “Red.”

“Good. Now, don’t move.”

He turns away from me and walks to the center of the room. I take him at his word and don’t force myself to look down at the floor. Instead, I keep my eyes trained on him as he brushes the tips of his fingers over a leather covered chair, then the ropes and restraints hanging on the walls. He considers each item he comes across carefully, often testing whichever thing has caught his eye before carefully securing it back to its place on the wall. In a way, I’m given a tour of the room myself, through his exploration of the implements he has available to him.

After testing the integrity of a piece of furniture that looks a little like a wrought iron chain link fence standing up against the wall with just enough padding to make being secured with the leather cuffs in each of the four corners bearable, he decides he’s seen enough and he returns to the leather chair. His eyes stay on mine as he sits down and slowly unravels his bow tie, and once he’s relaxed, he places his hands on either arm rest and settles back until he’s comfortable.

“Lose the dress,” he says. I reach back and start fumbling with the zipper, which makes me feel clumsy. But once I finally get it down enough that I no longer have to struggle to reach it, I remember the scene and try to reveal the rest of my body in a much more seductive manner. He doesn’t look pleased.

“I didn’t ask for a floor show. Show me what’s mine, Anastasia.”

Instantly, my fingers release their hold on the fabric and the dress falls to the floor in a pool of gray. Again, I feel somehow more than naked. The way the lingerie leaves so much of my skin exposed has me hyper aware of my body, and as I feel Christian’s gaze move over me, I feel like I’m the physical embodiment of sex. When his eyes heat with his desire, mine pools down between my legs.  

I step forward, shaking away the material that clings to my heels and wait for my next command. He lifts a finger and silently twirls it through the air, a signal for me to turn and give him the full view. I do, and once my back is to him, he gets up and presses his chest into my mostly naked back until I’m pushed flush against the door, then swings his hand up to smack me hard on the behind. I hiss at the sound.

“You’re too beautiful for your own goddamn good,” he whispers into my ear. I moan as his fingers begin to knead my flesh. “Do you know that I still fantasize about you? All the fucking time. It doesn’t matter how recently I’ve had you, or for how long. There comes a time, at least once a day, where I’ll be sitting in my office at GEH and the only thing I can think about is this.” His hands tighten on my ass again, and a small gasp of pleasure escapes my lips as his fingers pull me apart. “The way it looks when it’s pinked from my hand. Or when I have you bent over, spread open, and I can see my cock moving in and out of you.” He hisses as he takes a sharp intake of breath, and moves his fingers up the back of my arms to my shoulders. “You drive me fucking wild, Anastasia.”

“I feel the same for you,” I manage to breathe back. He groans and then pulls my head to the side with a sharp yank of my hair. I whimper with pain, but it’s quickly soothed away by his lips and tongue on the sensitive skin of my neck. I feel him nip me. I feel him suck. His mouth is so insistent that I’m sure he’ll leave me marked, but I can’t find it in myself to care. I’m too lost in the sensation of his erection grinding into my behind through his pants, and the texture of the door rubbing against my oversensitive nipples every time I squirm.

“Oh god, Christian,” I pant. His bites me right at the epicenter between my shoulder and neck, and then drags the tip of his nose all the way up to my ear, where he starts to suckle at my earlobe.

“Are you wet for me, baby?”

“Mhm.” The muffled sound barely makes it through my trembling lips, but he smiles all the same.

“Why don’t we check on that?”

He pushes more of his weight into me so that he can keep me pinned to the door without his hands and kicks the inside of each of my feet to get me to spread my legs. His thighs hold mine open as he reaches down, but when his fingers touch the miniscule scrap of lace that makes up my panties, he clicks his tongue in disapproval.

“This won’t do.” I’m jolted slightly as he hooks his finger beneath my thong and tugs, pulling my ass away from the door. I put my hands up to support myself in the new awkward position, while he grips onto the elastic that holds the lace together and then pushes his thumbs through the delicate fabric. Once it gives, he tears it all the way up the middle. My vagina is still framed by the tattered remains, but there’s nothing left to cover me. I’m exposed, open, and at his mercy.

One long finger drags up and down my lips, spreading my arousal up to my clit and back down again. Over and over, until my legs start to shake.

“Soaked,” he says. “God, I love the way you’re always ready for me.”

“Take me, Sir. Fuck me as hard as you can.”

My plea is met with a harsh slap across my ass, different from before. Harder. I clench with unexpected pain. “Ah!”

“That sounded an awful lot like a demand.”

“Please?”

His hand disappears from between my legs and once again tangles in my hair. However, this time, he doesn’t move my head to the side to give him easier access to my throat. He pushes me down onto my knees with bruising force.

“Open your mouth,” he commands. I take a second to regain my bearings, then do as he says. With one demanding thrust, he pushes his cock past my lips and my throat tightens at the unexpected invasion. I choke, and he starts to massage my scalp.

“Relax, Anastasia. Breathe through your nose.” I do, but my throat relaxing only enables him to push further inside. His hands act like anchors on the back of my head as he fucks my face, pushing me into him with the same force he uses to take me. My eyes start to water and mascara stained tears start leaking down my cheeks. I begin to drool. The sounds I make around him aren’t sexy and breathy, they’re wet and guttural. None of it dissuades him, and my arousal begins to pour out of me until the insides of my thighs are as slick as my inner lips.

“Oh, fuck!” he shouts, his deep timber reverberating with pleasure. “That’s it, Ana. Just like that. Shit! Shit! Shit!”

Just as quickly as he filled my mouth, he disappears. I fall forward onto my hands, sputtering and coughing, sucking in long pulls of air so I can catch my breath.

“Look at that,” he groans. I look up to see him slowly stroking his erection, and it takes me a moment to realize that it’s not for pleasure. The base of his cock is smeared with my lip color, and he’s spreading it up and down his shaft. “So fucking hot.”

His cock jumps in his hand and my mouth starts to water. I’m filled with such anticipation, such need, that I’m trembling on the floor. I want to leap at him, just like I did that day on the yacht. I want to get the lapels of his tuxedo jacket in my fist and push him back onto the bed on the other side of the room. I want to take what I want from him until I’m sated and satisfied. Waiting for him to do it for me is nearly torture.

“On your feet,” he says. I scramble up off my knees as quickly as I can, then take his outstretched hand. He leads me to a kind of bench that is separated into two halves. The padded top of one half is only a few inches off the ground, the other, a foot or so above that. Following Christian’s instructions, I kneel down on the lower half, then bend over the top.

“Fuck,” he breathes, dragging his hand softly down my back until he grips my ass. “The things I want to do to you…”

I want to tell him that he can do as he pleases. That I want him to use me the way he has in his fantasies. That I want to please him. But I don’t, because it would be redundant. He knows he’s in control. He knows I’m at his mercy. And the sting from the castigation I received the last time my pleas were taken as demands is enough to keep me silent.

“Don’t move,” he says, then he disappears out of my peripheral. Moments later, he returns with a bundle of natural fiber rope that scratches against the skin on my wrists as he fastens them to the legs of the bench. Next, he picks up a heavy metal bar with leather cuffs on either end, winds the buckles around each of my ankles, and then elongages the bar with a strong yank, pulling my legs so far apart, I can feel the stretch in my thighs.

“Too far?” he checks when I whimper.

“No, Sir.”

He paces around me for a moment, examining me, circling me like a shark closing in on his prey. I’m so tight with need, my insides start to ache. The energy pouring off of him as he drinks me in stokes the heat growing unbearably hot inside my belly. And when he finally falls to his knees behind me, I nearly cry with relief at his touch.

His hands slide up the backs of my thighs and dig into the flesh on my behind. He spreads me open, putting me fully on display, before he leans down and kisses my clit.

I scream.

“Easy, baby. We’re just getting started.”

“I need you,” I whine. “So bad.”

“All in good time. Relax.” He kisses me again, gently at first, but the more of my arousal he tastes, the more ravenous he becomes. Like he’s in a frenzy. It’s good that he told me he wouldn’t ask for my silence, because I wouldn’t hear his reminders or warnings over the loud, incoherent cries that rip their way from my chest.

“God, the way you taste, baby,” he says in a voice as rough as sandpaper. “So fucking sweet.”

“Mmm,” I whimper. “Don’t stop.”

“You like the way I eat you? The way my tongue feels inside you? Swirling around your clit?”

“Yes. God, yes.”

“Yeah? How about this?” He licks all the way up until he’s moved past my perineum and his tongue begins dancing around the entrance to my ass. It’s a surprise and my immediate reaction is to get away from him. I try to squirm, but the rough fibers of the rope around my wrists cut into my skin when I struggle, and his hands on my hips are more restraint than the bar between my ankles. He pulls back and spits on me, then uses his tongue to work the added moisture through my tightly bunched muscles. It’s taboo, and erotic, and filthy, and incredible. And when his thumb starts playing with my clitoris while he tongue fucks my ass, the room around me starts to spin until it dissolves completely into a sex crazed fog.

“Christian, wait,” I pant, thrusting my hips hard into the bench to gain some distance from his insistent, wonderful, intrusive tongue.

“Wait?” He sits back, but his tongue is immediately replaced by a finger that sinks deep inside of me. I clench again, and the added tightness makes even that one finger feel impossibly large. “Do you need to say something?”

My safeword. He’s asking for my safeword.

“I don’t want you to stop… I just, your tongue and my–” My entire body grows hot and I assume grows flush with embarrassment, and he responds by pushing his finger deeper inside of me.

“This is mine, just as much as any other part of you, Anastasia. Mine to spank. Mine to taste. And mine to fuck.” He starts to work another finger inside of me, and I let out a high pitched whine. “True or false, Anastasia?”

“What?”

“Is. This. Mine?” His fingers push and pull in and out of me with each word. I struggle to breathe through the rapidly blooming pleasure. Words fail me. Rational thought seems to all but disappear. I’m lost to sensation, until his fingers vanish and he hits me hard across the ass once more. “Answer me.”

“Yes. It’s yours.”

“You’re mine,” he corrects me, and his fingers are once again replaced by his tongue.

Unable to deny him without denying myself, I surrender to the invasion and find that, once I let go of my unfounded embarrassment and trepidation, I actually enjoy the feeling of his tongue ravishing my most forbidden erogenous zone. More than enjoy… the feeling is mind boggling. Pure, uninhibited hedonism that erases expectations and judgements and lets me bask in euphoric delirium. And when I realize he’s going to make me come, I find myself pushing back onto that perfect and oh so talented tongue.

“That’s right, baby.” He pulls away but continues to play with my pleated bunch of muscles, using my slick arousal to heighten the feeling. I start to build. Each pass of his thumb feels as though it turns up the temperature of my body until I’m burning, ready to explode into an all consuming orgasm. I’m close. So close…

And then his hand disappears.

“No! No, don’t stop!”

“Shh.” He turns away, fumbling with something I can’t see, and my orgasm dissipates. It leaves an ache throbbing between my thighs that I can’t ignore. My second denial of the night and every cell in my body begs for release. I can’t even close my legs and let friction do the work.

“Christian. Sir. Master. Please…”

“This is going to be cold,” he replies. My brow furrows, but that’s quickly wiped away by shock as Christian drips an icy liquid over my ass. Lubricant, I soon discover, as the chill vanishes with the friction of his fingers. “Take a deep breath for me, baby.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to put a plug in you. It will be uncomfortable at first, but you’ll adjust. If you don’t relax, it will hurt.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “Yes, Sir.”

He presses the tip of something hard against my entrance and slowly works it forward. It’s easy to take at first, but soon it starts to stretch. Wider and wider, until the pleasure is overwhelmed with pain.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I beg, and he stops. His free hand begins to toy with my clitoris again and a finger dips inside of me until my muscles relax and the pain disappears.

“Almost, baby,” he whispers, and slowly, he begins to ease the plug the rest of the way in. When he leans down to kiss me, there’s a look of pride on his face. “This is going to be hard, Anastasia. And fast.”

I nod, and he moves behind me. His hands are rough and rude as he pulls me apart to make room for his erection, and he slams inside of me in one fluid thrust. The combination of him and the plug has me feeling overwhelmingly full, and his brutal, relentless rhythm threatens to turn me inside out.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream. His hand wraps around my hair and he pushes my face down into the padding on the bench, pressing down, holding me in place, as he ravishes me.

“Take it, Anastasia. Take all of it.”

He’s like a wild animal in the way he moves. The sounds he makes are raw and savage with his need, and his hands hold me so tightly I wonder if he’s hoping he’ll leave marks. It’s real control. Ownership. And all of that has me completely unravelling. Panting, moaning, screaming his name. For a punishment, he seems to be giving me everything I wanted leaving the party tonight.

“Oh god,” I scream. “Don’t stop, Christian. I’m going to come…”

“Oh, baby. You think I’m going to let you come?” I can’t register his response. I’m too lost in the urgency of my impending orgasm. But for the third time tonight, just as I’m about to fall over the edge of ecstasy, he stops and leaves me wanting.

“Fuck. No…”

“It’s amazing how fast you lose it, isn’t it? Five or ten seconds with no stimulation…” He leans down and claims my mouth in a slow, deep kiss that fans the flames of my desire for him, but does nothing to rescue the orgasm slipping through my fingers. By the time his lips pull away, I’ve lost it.

“Why?” I mewl.

“I told you I was going to punish you. You should know by now that I’m a man of my word.”

My protest is cut off as he slams inside of me again and picks up his relentless pace. He pounds into me like he’s trying to fuck the life out of me. And as if his assault wasn’t enough to bring me right back to the edge, he whispers and moans everything he’s feeling into my ear with each and every thrust. How tight I am, swollen from his repeated onslaught and denial. How much he loves looking at me, sweating and needy beneath him. How it drives him crazy hearing me scream his name. How I make him feel. How beautiful I am. How much he loves me. He builds me up over and over again only to deny me. And it goes on forever. I start to lose track of how many orgasms I’ve lost, and each time one falls out of my reach, the pain of its absence becomes more intense.

I came into this room fearing the items on the walls. But any torture they could inflict is nothing to this.

“Please,” I sob, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Please, Christian, let me come. I can’t take it…”

“Do you need to say something to me?” He pulls out of me to give me the chance to safeword, but I’m too distracted by the sight of his erection in his fist to consider it. His cock is bigger than I’ve ever seen it. The tip is so swollen from his own need for release that it’s nearly purple. My mouth waters at the sight of it, my body screams in need. I don’t want to safeword, because I don’t want him to stop. I want him to finish. I want him to finish me.

“Please, Christian. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you a thousand times that I’m sorry, but please! I can’t take it anymore. I can’t.”

“Yes you can.”

“Please… I don’t want to say it. It’s my word, Christian. But if I have to use it when I don’t want to, then it’s not my word anymore, and I need that word. Please, don’t force me to say it.”

For the first time, I see a crack in his otherwise perfectly stoic demeanor.

“Fuck.” His jaw tightens as he battles with the dominant determined to punish me for my indiscretions, and the husband who has only ever wanted to give me the world. His hand comes down on my back, his fingers dig into my skin, and slowly, he pushes inside of me once more.

“Tell me he’s nothing,” he says through clenched teeth.

My eyes screw closed and my fingers tighten around the bench. I’m at a loss. I know what he wants from me, but I can’t give it to him.

“He’ll never be you, Christian. I’ll only ever love you.”

He growls and then lowers his body down over the top of mine. His fingers work on the knots at my wrists and the buckles on my ankles, until I’m completely free of his restraints. Then he flips me over on my back, picks up his rhythm, and kisses me again. I wrap my arms and legs around him, holding him as close to me as is physically possible, and when I’m finally hit with the hurricane force of my orgasm, he pulls the plug out of me and forces me to reevaluate my personal definition of earth shattering pleasure. I scream his name over and over again until he too finds his release.

We come down panting, covered in sweat. My body is sore and weak. I feel drained. But only a minute or so after we’ve had the chance to catch our breaths, Christian gets up and reaches out for my hand.

“There’s a shower. Let me get you cleaned up.”

I nod sleepily, but let me help me to my feet. He half carries me as we make our way into the private bathroom, and sets me on the counter as he turns on the shower. He comes back to me and takes my mouth in a deep, all consuming kiss that lasts long after the room has filled with steam. Even when he lifts me into his arms and carries me into the shower, our lips never part.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper into his mouth.

“I know.”

The hot water burns against my sensitive skin, but I tolerate it because standing beneath the cascade means I’m standing in Christian’s arms. With a sense of care and gentility absent from the rest of this evening, he takes the soap and begins to clean my body. His hands soothe the sting from my raw behind. His fingers massage my shoulders and neck until I’m free of tension. He washes my hair, and holds me tightly against my body while I dip my head under the water to rinse away the suds.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“I’m fine. Are you?”

He swallows, and backs me up into the shower wall. I can feel a plea in his lips as he kisses me again, and the desperate yearning in the way his tongue caresses mine. “When I got on my plane yesterday morning, I really believed you were leaving me,” he says at last.

“That’s not a possibility. You’re never going to lose me, Christian. Not ever.”

“I want to believe that, Anastasia. But this weekend has frightened me in a way that I haven’t been frightened in a very long time. Not since I brought you to this city four years ago. I feel like you’ve forgotten everything we’ve been through together. Everything we’ve promised each other. Every time I’ve vowed to love and cherish you, no matter. How could you possibly think I wouldn’t understand what you were going through?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just spent so much time just trying to forget, that I ended up forgetting all the wrong things.”

He rests his forehead against mine and nuzzles the tip of my nose with his. “I’ll never let you forget again. Perhaps I haven’t been what you’ve needed these past few months. But that will never happen again. I’m here for you. Always. And I love you, more than my own life.”

“I love you too, Christian. So much.”

“Do not betray me again.”

“Never.” He lets out a long breath, then lifts my left hand and places a gentle kiss on my wedding band. My throat constricts and my heart beats heavily in my chest until he reaches down to turn off the water. When he looks at me again, there’s new resolve in his eyes.

“I forgive you.”

“Thank you.” I push off the wall and into his arms, wrapping my own around him as tightly as I can. His lips press into my wet hair and then he lifts me out of the shower. We gather our things and leave the room hand in hand, leaving the hurt and betrayal behind us. By the time he’s buckled me back into the car, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I fall asleep with his hand in mine.

Next Chapter

Chapter 21

angry

We stand across the room from each other like the space between us is an impassable chasm filled with my betrayal and lies. The way he’s looking at me makes what I felt back at LAVO and on the cab ride home a hundred times worse. I’d told myself again and again that the reason I kept all of this from him was because I was afraid of his interference. But now part of me wonders if, deep down, I was afraid of this. I was afraid of the disgust I can now see in his eyes.

“Christian, I can explain.”

“Explain?” he repeats, almost incredulously. “Explain? What could you possibly say that would make me understand this?”

I shake my head. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I got so wrapped up in everything that I just acted on instinct and by the time I realized what I was doing, I was in too deep…”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do with that, Anastasia? I mean, Jesus Christ, you weren’t thinking clearly? You signed fucking contracts! I have confronted you about this over and over again and every goddamn time you assured me there was nothing to worry about. You made me feel like I was paranoid! Jealous! Crazy! I trusted you, Anastasia. Do you have any fucking idea how difficult it is for me to trust people, and now you…” His words cut off with his mounting anger. He begins to pace and his hands ball into fists. “How long?”

“What?”

“How long has this been going on?”

“I uh…” No more lies, Ana. “Since October. Since the campaign.”

He lets out a harsh breath that looks as though it causes him physical pain. His pacing stops, but his body begins to tremble with rage. He pours himself another generous drink, slams it down as if it were water, then throws the glass against the chest of drawers in the corner. I let out a startled scream when the tumbler shatters and sends a million pieces of glittering glass across the carpet.

“Christian, please…” I plead, frightened by the severity of his anger. “If you’ll just calm down and talk to me—“

“I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to hear whatever excuse you’ve come up with to justify this to yourself. What I want is to go find Sawyer and beat the ever living shit out of him.”

“This wasn’t his idea. It was me. All me.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” He makes a disgusted sound and turns away from me, glaring out the widow at the glittering city lights all around us. I want to go to him. It’s a pull as strong as instinct that makes me want to throw my arms around him and promise that I will never betray his trust like this ever again. But I can’t. Everything he’s feeling right now is my fault. I’ve done this to him, and I don’t deserve his comfort after tonight. So I stay frozen in place, watching him in anguish.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” he asks at last. “Were you going to give me the chance to fight for you? For our family?” He turns to face me again, and for the first time since I stepped into this room, fury isn’t the predominant emotion on his face. It’s hurt. More than that, it’s devastation, and it hits me as though he’s slapped me across the face.

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to stop. This was the only thing that made me feel like I was surviving and… I couldn’t stop. But I know that I fucked up and I’m so sorry that I lied to you. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was trying to protect you and I thought what you didn’t know couldn’t hurt…”

“Well I know,” he says, coldly. “I know about your secret rendezvous with Sawyer all over the motherfucking city, about all the money you’ve been putting away, about Harrington… Was that to hurt me? As if all of this wasn’t going to destroy me enough, you brought Harrington into it?”

“He was a threat.”

“A threat? What the fuck does that even mean? You hired Harrington to help you leave me because you were scared of him?”

My brow furrows and I look up at him, confused. “To help me leave you? What are you talking about?”

“Your new apartment.” He turns, reaches into a leather bag resting on the floor by his chair, pulls out an oversized white envelope, and tosses it on the bed between us. “This came in the mail for you this morning.”

“You opened my mail?”

“When something comes to my house, addressed to my wife from Astor Harrington, you better fucking believe I opened it. Congratulations, Anastasia. The place looks great, you can move in next week.”

I pick up the envelope and pull out the loose sheets of paper inside. It’s the closing paperwork on the downtown apartment I’d bought as part of Astor’s moving expenses from Cambridge to Seattle. He plans to move at the end of the month, but since I purchased the apartment, it’s my name on the deed. Not his.

“I got on my plane as soon as it could leave and came straight here,” Christian says, “but you were already gone. Woods had no idea where you were and you didn’t answer my calls, so I had Taylor track your phone. I know you were at LAVO tonight, and I know you were in a private room with Luke Sawyer.”

“Oh my god. Christian, I wasn’t…”

“Why, Ana?” he interrupts. “What did I do that would make you do this to me? To Calliope. Don’t you realize what you’re taking from her? I can’t…”

His hands ball into fists once more and when he turns away again, like he can’t even stand to look at me, I ignore the warning inside that tells me to give him space and rush around the bed to him. He recoils from my touch, but I grab onto him anyway.

“I’m not cheating on you, Christian.”

“I saw you get out of the cab tonight. I saw Sawyer walk you to the door and I saw you kiss him.”

“On the cheek! He’s my best friend. I kiss him in the same way I kiss Kate, or Elliot… it was nothing. I was thanking him for staying by my side despite what I was turning into, for helping me see what I was really doing. I’m not sleeping with him. I would never, not with anyone… You’re the only person that I want and you know that.”

Anger flashes, hot and fast across his face again. “Don’t tell me what I know. This is what I know.” He picks up the envelope again and I quickly shake my head.

“That’s not what you think it is. None of this is.”

“Anastasia–”

“It’s not! I wasn’t in that club tonight to hook up with Luke, I was there to meet Damien Beaufort.”

He freezes and the fury momentarily recedes from his eyes. “What…? Beaufort? From Wiseman and Beaufort PR, Beaufort?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because you told me he was in the lifestyle and Alexis Young needed a new dominant.” He blinks like he’s having a hard time understanding what I’m telling him.

“Alexis Young? You mean… Gresham’s submissive?”

I nod. “I want to tell you everything, Christian. You just have to sit down and give me a chance. Please.”

I motion to the bed, but he doesn’t sit. He stares at me for a long time, uncertain, before he turns and picks up his bottle of bourbon again. He pulls the cap away, takes a long pull from the bottle, then sits back in his chair, the alcohol still clutched firmly in his hands between his knees.

“Alright. Talk.”

 

It’s not a quick discussion. I know the only way to move forward from here is to be honest with him and not hold anything back. I lay everything out in excruciating detail, even the parts that I have to choke out through my tears to explain. The nightmares. Andrew Lincoln’s voice echoing through my head standing outside of GEH while the building smoldered right in front of me. I tell him about the tape and how Luke got it, Kozlowski and immigration, my visit to Cambridge with Astor and Carter, and Alexis. The lengths I went to, and the moment it hit me. He doesn’t soften at all, and as I become more and more desperate for him to understand, for him to forgive me, I start making excuses again.

“She had Elena’s book, Christian. You know just as well as I do what that would have done to us had she sent it to anyone. What was I supposed to do?”

“Supposed to do? What were you supposed to do? You were supposed to come to me.” It’s the first thing he’s said since I started and the words are heavy with an emotion I can’t put into words, but that I can feel deep in my heart. He stands up, looking wildly around the room at everything but me. “You were supposed to tell me that you weren’t coping. You were supposed to tell me that you were in pain and that you were scared so that I could handle it appropriately. You were supposed to tell your husband you needed help, not Luke fucking Sawyer!”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“Why, Ana? Why wouldn’t you talk to me? No, worse… why would you lie to me and tell me you were fine when you weren’t and then run off to him?”

“Because it was killing you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t you remember what it was like in those weeks after it happened? When I was sobbing uncontrollably while I was awake and screaming when I slept? When a knock on the door felt like I was being attacked and I was sure that the phone ringing would bring threats of violence? You missed physical therapy appointments, you stopped going to work, you hardly ate or slept… I fell apart and you nearly killed yourself trying to put me back together again. Don’t you see how much worse that made it for me? I was hurting you because I was too weak to deal with this and I couldn’t live with that anymore. I just wanted everything to go back to the way it was. I wanted to be your Ana again. This thing with Luke, it felt like control. It felt like I had power again and as long as I could maintain that, I could live my life. I could feel normal, I could be the woman that you married… I didn’t tell you because if I did you would stop me and I didn’t want to stop.”

“But you’re not the woman I married. You’re not my Ana. Not like this.”

I nod. “I know. I see that now, and I’m done. I promise, Christian. It’s over.”

“So what do we do now? Where do we go from here?”

“I’ll go to therapy. I’ll talk to Flynn and work out my shit. I’m not going to fight you anymore.”

He sighs and hangs his head. “I don’t know if that’s enough.”

A cold chill runs over me and my heart feels like it drops into my stomach. “What?”

“You went to Sawyer, Anastasia!”

“Because of Lincoln!”

“No, this isn’t just about Lincoln anymore, you’ve made this about us. This is about your complete and utter lack of faith in me. It’s about you trusting another man with what you’re going through more than you trust me. And Sawyer… I don’t know that I can just get over this again. Not this time. Not like this.”

“No.” I get up from my place on the side of the bed and take his face with my hands so I can look deep into his eyes. “No, that’s not true. That’s not what it was… I trust you, Christian. I do. This was all just a huge mistake!”

“Yeah.” He pushes my hands away moves out of my reach. I start to shake as I watch him staring blankly into the open space in front of him, making an internal decision without allowing me any input. “I’m… I’m going to go on a walk. I need some time to think.”

“What? No, Christian…” I reach out for him, but he catches my wrist before my fingers make contact.

“Away from you.” He releases me as he walks away and I’m too stunned to chase after him. The sound of the door closing behind him is as loud as a gunshot and it hits me in much the same way. I stumble towards the door and place my hands against the wood, feeling each of the grains with my fingertips as though some detail will be off and I’ll realize this has all been a dream.

It’s not though. I did this. And he left. In the course of an hour, my entire world has been shattered. And with Christian gone, there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

Dazed with grief, I try to make it back to the bed, but I stumble over my feet and fall to the floor. The pain from hitting the ground doesn’t even register in my body. I’m already too consumed with hurt more dire than anything physical could ever be. I’ve betrayed the man I loved, destroyed him in the process, and now… I might be about to lose him.

No. Not might. He’s gone. He heard everything, and he left anyway because he didn’t want to be with me.

He doesn’t want to be with me.

And it’s my fault.

At that thought, I burst into tears. My body shakes with the force of the pain it’s trying to expel, but there’s no escape. The loss of him fills every one of my pores and seeps into my blood until all that I am has been reduced to pain. Every cell in my body aches for him and is left wanting. I can curl into a ball and hold myself as tightly as I can manage, but there is no comfort. There is only the absence of Christian.

The man I love.

The man who has been everything to me.

The man who has faced the fires of hell by my side and merely held tighter to my hand.

 

An hour passes, then another, but Christian doesn’t return. I’ve resigned myself to the idea that he won’t, that maybe he’ll just get on his plane, fly back to Seattle, and move his things out of our home before I have the chance to stop him. But, just as the clock ticks past two in the morning, the electronic sound of the keypad beeps through the too quiet room, and the metal lock clicks open.

I sit up, face red, puffy, and soaked with tears, and take my first real breath in hours as the door opens and I watch Christian step inside. He looks gaunt. Ghostly. And despite the air of certainty I know he’s fighting to maintain, I can still see the shadow of pain behind his eyes.

“You came back,” I whisper.

“Of course I did. This is where you are. Where else would I go?”

As quickly as I can, I scramble off the floor so that I can throw my arms around him, but his hands catch me and he holds me back at arm’s length.

“I can protect you, Anastasia,” he says. “Better than Sawyer. Better than anyone. You have nothing to fear because I will never let anyone hurt you again.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t. If you did, you never would have done any of this. You would have come to me. But you didn’t, because I failed you. Because I let Lincoln get to you.”

“No…’

He shakes his head. “It’s never going to happen again. I won’t let it. And if you knew how much I really meant that, the lengths I’m willing to go to so that it doesn’t…” He takes a breath and his whole body tenses under the weight of his declaration. I stand motionless, waiting, until he relaxes again and finally pulls me into his chest. “I love you, Anastasia. Please don’t underestimate that.”  

“I won’t,” I promise. “I don’t. I’m done, I swear to you. I trust you, Christian. And I love you more than anything in the world.” Standing up on my toes, I kiss him with the force of everything I feel for him, but his lips hardly move against mine at all. He doesn’t part his lips for my tongue, he doesn’t even kiss me back. All too soon, he pushes me away from him and holds my gaze with his cold, gray eyes.

“Tell me that he means nothing to you.”

“Who?”

“Sawyer. I need to hear you say that he is nothing.”

“He’s my best friend. That’s not nothing.” His jaw clenches and I can feel him start to move away from me, so I grab onto his hand and push it tightly against my chest. “This is yours. My heart is yours. Every beat is for you and only you. Nothing and no one will ever change that. I love you, Christian. I’m only ever going to love you.”

He stares at me as though my words are not enough to assuage his fears, but eventually he takes a deep breath and pushes his fingertips into the skin on my chest. I’m once again holding back tears as I watch him war with the conflict deep inside of him, but eventually, he reaches into my hair and pulls me into a tight embrace.

“You are mine,” he says firmly, his fingers curling harshly in the roots of my hair.

“Yours,” I repeat back. With a harsh yank, he tilts my face up to his and kisses me hard, taking full possession of me with his mouth, and I let him. My body melts against his in submission, but when my fingers move up to the buttons of his shirt, he grabs my wrists and pulls my hands away from him.

“It’s late. You need to go to bed.”

I gape as he moves to pull down the blankets and makes room for me to lay down. His touch is overly careful as he tucks me in, and after kissing me softly on the forehead, he goes into the bathroom to undress. I wait in the dim lamplight for him to return, but once he climbs into bed next to me, he doesn’t wrap his arms around me or pull me flush against his body as he normally would. He rolls over, facing away from me, and turns off the light.

 

When my alarm goes off the next morning, I could lie sideways in the space between us.

“God, turn it off,” Christian groans, rolling to the other side of the bed. I move up onto my elbows and silence the shrill chirp of my phone, then close the distance between us and kiss the back of his shoulder.

“Good morning. How do you feel?”

“Like I was hit by a truck.”

“Can I get you something?”

“A lobotomy?”

I laugh, but he cringes away from the sound and pulls the blankets over his head. That though, is not surprising. The bottle of bourbon he was drinking from last night is still sitting on the table by the window and there isn’t much left inside. He’s usually not much of a drinker, so I can only imagine how hungover he must be.

As quietly as possible, I get out bed, pick out the clothes I’m going to wear today, and sneak into the bathroom to get ready for work. Normally, I’d probably take the day off to stay home and try and repair what’s been broken between us, but that’s just not an option. I’m in New York specifically for this book party, and my personal life lying in shambles isn’t going to be enough to postpone it. Not to Daves. Not to Scott. And definitely not to Carmen.

I’m just reassuring myself that leaving for the day will actually be a good thing since it’ll give Christian a chance to sleep off his hangover and think through everything we both said the night before, when I hear a loud rapping against our hotel room door.

“Shit!” Tripping over my shoes, I throw the mascara tube in my hand down on the counter and scramble out of the bathroom. Evan stands in the hallway, dressed in a clean suit that’s more formal than what I’ve seen him wear in months.

“Are you ready, Mrs. Grey?”

“Uh, yeah,” I whisper. “Christian’s still sleeping so I’m just going to let him know we’re leaving.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll wait here.” He turns so that his back is to the door and crosses his arms over his chest. I raise an eyebrow at him, but ignore the unexpected formality and make my way back to my husband.

“Hey, I’m about to leave. Do you want to get breakfast before I go in?”

“No,” he yawns. “I’m going to get a few more hours of sleep until it’s business hours in Seattle, then I’ve got some work to do.”

“Lunch then?”

“Sorry. Meetings.” He moves uncomfortably, keeping his eyes scrunched tightly closed. “Will you close the curtains before you leave?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.” He rolls over again and that’s it. I get up, pick up my purse, and close the curtains. Before I make it all the way out of the room though, I stop and turn back to face him.

“Christian?”

“Hm?”

“Are– are we okay?”

His head lolls to the side and, slowly, his eyes open. “Of course we are. Have a good day.” His voice sounds dead. Completely devoid of any emotion that would reassure me.

I swallow. “Okay. I uh… I have a party tonight for The Black Rose. I’ll be back late.”

“Have fun.”

“Alright. Feel better.” He hums his response, but as I turn for the door, he calls out to stop me.

“Anastasia.”

“Yeah?”

Wincing away from the pain undoubtedly pounding in his head, he sits up and looks over at me. “A few weeks ago, you logged into the GEH server from your office at home.”

“Oh… yeah.”

“Is this why?”

“Yes. Before you told me about Beaufort, I thought I might find someone in Elena’s old records.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry, Christian…”

“No.” He shakes his head. “I just thought you were trying to get some inside information on Grey Publishing. Steal some prospects, maybe. I was kind of looking forward to duking it out with you.”

“We still will.” I try and smile, hoping to lighten the mood. “I’ve got some stuff that’s going to blow you out of the water, Grey.”

“Yeah.” He lets out a long breath, then slides back down into bed. “I’ll see you tonight.”

I nod, though he doesn’t see because he’s already rolled over and his back is to me again. The whole exchange feels off, not like him, and once I’ve left and stepped into the elevator, I realize why. He didn’t tell me he loved me and never once have I left him without those parting words.

‘Stop it’, I mentally chide myself. Just last night, he told me not to underestimate his love and I promised I wouldn’t. He’s tired. He’s hungover. And I didn’t say it either. So I pull out my phone to text it to him.

“Mrs. Grey?” I look up from my phone and realize the elevator has stopped. Evan stands on the shiny floor of the lobby with his arm over the door to keep it open. I give him a grateful smile as I slip my phone back into my bag and follow him out to the street, but I’m keenly aware of the lack of vibrations against my hip that would tell me Christian responded as we make our way outside.

He’s probably fallen asleep. Relax.

We don’t hail a cab to get into work today. Taylor waits for us out on the curb, standing in front of a black SUV that’s so familiar, it’s like it has Christian’s signature scrawled across it. I smile at him as he opens my door for me, but his face remains stoic. Both he and Evan sit in the front seat, staring ahead as we pull into traffic, not saying a word.

Apparently, even my security is mad at me.

 

My day doesn’t improve much once I make it into the office. Scott is overly interested in the reason I left early last night and he spends the entire time we have to wait in the conference room for a 9 AM staff meeting with Carmen asking intrusive questions, trying to figure out where I went. Once the meeting starts, he and I immediately have to go on the defensive, explaining last quarter’s poor sales and assuring Carmen that sales trends are up this quarter and getting stronger as we go. But, once the meeting’s over and we make it back to Scott’s office to check the overnight numbers for The Black Rose’s pre-sales, we find our bravado was for nothing.

“Eleven-hundred?” Scott reads, looking at the screen with a combination of disbelief and revulsion. “How is that possible? That’s only twelve numbers higher than it was when we left.”

“Well, maybe people weren’t book shopping in the middle of the night,” I suggest nervously. “Maybe there’s an optimal window. 9 AM to 5 PM, or something.”

“We can’t afford a window, Anastasia. This is it. This book is floating both of our branches and if it doesn’t sell, we’re fucked.”

“You’re not looking at this right, Scott. The book hasn’t even been released yet. We’ve done one press announcement and we got over 1,000 pre-orders. We have the party tonight and the press tour he’ll go on once the book is actually released. There’s still time.”

“No. I think we’re doing something wrong with the marketing. Daves has too big of a following to be showing numbers this low. Maybe we need to find a way to tie this in with Stormy Nights. Pull his fan base in by reminding them of how much they’ve loved his work in the past.

“I don’t know that that’s such a good idea…”

He shoots a condescending look in my direction, like even I couldn’t be dumb enough to believe what I just said. “Really, Ana? You think it would be a bad idea to invoke his success and popularity to showcase his talent and tempt people into giving his latest work a chance?”

“I mean, yeah… you’ll see spike in sales, but you’re going to be drawing in the wrong audience. Stormy Nights was a supernatural, teen romance and The Black Rose is a gritty crime drama. The comparison is going to turn off the people who would actually enjoy the story and coerce a bunch of sixteen year old girls who are going to hate it into buying it. Either way, you’re alienating his future audience.”

“You give too much credit to the public, Anastasia. This isn’t about the genre, it’s about name recognition. People are drawn to things that feel familiar and everyone knows about Stormy Nights.”

I don’t know if it’s my worries over Christian, or the stress from my meeting this morning, but in that moment, something inside me snaps.

“No,” I say firmly. “I know that you have just as much invested in the success of this story as I do, but this is a GSP Seattle title, Daves is my author, and I’m saying no. The marketing materials are staying exactly as they are.”

“Excuse me?”

“Mrs. Grey?” We both look up and see Scott’s assistant standing in the open doorway.

“Yes?”

“You have a call from the Seattle office, one of your editors. Line one.”

“Thank you, Heather.” I move away from the desk, but pause on my way out the door to issue one last warning to Scott. “I’ll take care of The Black Rose. Stay out of it. I really don’t want to have to come back here next quarter and explain this title’s failure the way I just had to explain away everything you sent to press before I came on board.”

He narrows his eyes, but doesn’t make any arguments. I turn with a straight back and my head held high, and make my way to the empty desk on the back corner of the floor. It’s the first time I’ve been able to sit at my computer all day, so I have to turn everything on and log in as I pick up the phone.

“Ana Grey.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” the voice I recognize as Jacki’s answers.

“Please don’t give me bad news…”

“It’s the best kind of bad news. The 2nd print of Paige’s book went out today and I’ve already gotten calls for restocks. Two stores sold out in under an hour. We’re going to have to order a third print.”

“What?” My computer finally lets me into the system and I’m able to glance over the unread emails in my inbox. Four are the restock requests Jacki mentioned and one is a response from the warehouse informing me that there’s no backstock to fill the order. I pull up the sales matrix page so I can check the numbers and I’m floored. This book was released two weeks ago, and between yesterday morning and right now, we’ve already sold another sixteen hundred copies. “Holy shit,” I breathe in disbelief.

“I know. I think this might be the first time we’ve run into the problem of our press being too small for a release.”

“Then we’ve got to do better. I’ll call the printers and get another rush order done. We’ll have them do a third and fourth print simultaneously. Get ahold of Paige, and ask if she’d be willing to write a forward for the e-book version so we can encourage online sales and take some pressure off the press. And while you’re at it, put some pressure on her to get the pages for her next book.”

“Sure thing, Ana. I’ll call right now.”

“Good. And Jacki?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re my favorite person in the world right now.”

She laughs. “Thanks.”

Hanging up the phone, I let out a long sigh of relief, then hurry away from my computer back to Scott’s office.

“You coming to apologize?” he asks after I’ve knocked on the frame of his door.

“No. Actually, I came to let you know that one of my fiction editors just requested a third print of the title she’s currently representing. It’s only been two weeks and she’s sold almost 14,000 copies.”

“What?”

“Her online sales have been absolutely tremendous and the stores we restocked today sold out in an hour. This is shaping up to be more than hit, this might turn into a phenomenon.”

“What book is this? Why don’t I know anything about it?”

“It’s one of Jacki’s, and you don’t know about it because it was published by my branch. I okay’d it, and I didn’t need your opinion on the matter. Do you run everything on your frontlist by me before you send your completed manuscripts off to print?”

“Ana… there’s quite a bit of difference between you and me.”

“Is there?”

He sighs. “Look, this power struggle isn’t going to get you anywhere, darling. You’re not going to impress Carmen by fighting me at every opportunity. Quite frankly, it’s making you look desperate. Irrational. You gotta stop letting yourself get so emotional over everything.”

“Emotional?”

“I know it’s the way you girls operate, but if you just let me guide you, let me teach you how we do things here, you’ll be so much more successful. I know you can be good. You went to Harvard after all. You’re a smart girl.”

I let out a humorless laugh. “Yeah, I am. Which is amazing considering how fragile and hysterical I can be at times. Thank god I have you, Scott.”

His eyes move through the door as the volume of my voice rises. “Now come on, Ana.”

“You want to know the real difference between you and me, Wallace? It’s not that I’m just better educated, or that I work harder, or even that, out of the two of us, mine is the only name that has appeared on the New York Times best seller list… it’s that, while you’re in here crying over your poor pre-sale numbers for the book I told you was trash in the beginning, I’m going to be out there, helping my staff move 20,000 copies of a title you never would have let through the door in the first place.”

This time, I don’t even wait for his response. I turn on my heel, march back to my desk, and bury myself in work so I don’t spend the rest of my day worrying about Christian or imagining each and every satisfying way I could utterly decimate my New York counterpart.

 

There are more manuscripts in my inbox than I was prepared for, so keeping myself occupied is an easy task. By the time I come to a stopping point, most of the office around me has cleared out. I stretch to relieve some of tension that built up in my muscles from sitting all day and start to gather my things. But just as I turn to leave, I find my path blocked by Scott.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

“Yeah, I was just thinking… Look, Carmen was right. You and I have to find a way to work together. I know that I’m a little resistant to change and I have a way I like things done, so maybe I haven’t been the most accepting bringing you on board. But I sought you out for a reason, Anastasia. I think you’re going to be a huge asset to Greenwich and I want you to feel that way too.”

“Oh, well… Thank you.”

“Sure. I mean, I knew you were talented, your resume kind of speaks for you in those regards. But really getting to know you has proven you to be a whole different person than I expected you to be. Not everyone talks to me like you did this morning. It’s kind of sexy.”

My face goes blank and my back goes stiff. “Scott…”

“No, no, I don’t mean that I think you’re sexy… I mean, obviously you are, that’s not what I’m saying…” He takes a deep breath. “I just want you to know that you have impressed me. And I really appreciate all the work you’ve done. I’d really like it if we could move forward from here like real colleagues instead of, well, whatever we’re doing now.”

“Yeah, I’d like that.” He smiles and reaches out his hand, which I shake as briefly as possible before pulling away and nervously gripping the strap on my bag. He steps to the side so I can pass and I find myself walking quickly through the deserted cubicles to the lobby, where Evan is waiting. He stands and pushes the button to summon the elevator, and while we wait, I try to keep him physically between Scott and I until we make it to the street level and he starts to towards the subway, while I cross the sidewalk to where Taylor is waiting with the car.

“Everything alright, Mrs. Grey?” Evan asks, opening my door.

“Yeah, just…” I hesitate, and look in the direction where Scott disappeared.

“Ana?”

“Woods,” Taylor calls. “Boundaries.”

“Right. Sorry, sir.” He turns to face me, his face stony and impassive again.  “Mrs. Grey, if you’ll step inside the car, we’ll be on our way.”

I look between them and am once again reminded of what I left at the hotel. It’s after five now and Christian never did respond to the ‘I love you’ I sent on my way out the door this morning. In fact, he hasn’t texted me anything all day. And, I don’t think this sudden attitude change in the staff is a good sign for what I’ll find back at the hotel.

Maybe going to this party tonight isn’t such a good idea…

Getting desperate, I send Christian another text to check in and see how his day went, but all I get in response is the ‘read’ receipt beneath the words I sent. By the time I get back and am ushered out of the car by my security, I’m starting to panic again. I have an hour before I have to leave for the party so I think I might have just enough time to get him to sit down and talk to me again before I leave, but when I get to the room, it’s empty. It’s clear that housekeeping has come through, so I’d assume he’d been gone all day, except for the shopping bags sitting on the neatly made bed that weren’t there when I left this morning. Next to them is a note that says, ‘for tonight’ in Christian’s handwriting, so I bite my lip with nervous apprehension and look inside.

The first bag, from Bergdorf Goodman, contains a simple, Oscar de la Renta dress that’s professional and surprisingly modest. Not something Christian would normally choose for me. It’s most surprising feature, however, isn’t the cap sleeves or the high neckline… it’s the color. Gray. Not silver, not charcoal, not slate. Gray.

I lie the dress on the bed, and reach for the unbranded bag next to it, which holds, what I assume is, lingerie. It’s honestly hard to tell as there’s not much too what I pull out besides a tangled mess of strings. It takes me twenty minutes to figure out each piece and how to get it on my body, and once I do, I can barely look at my reflection..

The bra doesn’t even have cups and it fits more like a harness than underwear. Thin black strips wind below and around my breasts so that they’re supported, but still completely exposed. Panties seems too generous a word to describe the second garment. The band wraps around my waist in the same cage-like design as the bra, but the piece of lace that covers my most intimate part is half the size of my credit card. It’s all somehow more explicit than if I were completely naked.

After slipping into the gray dress, I only have enough time to touch up my hair and makeup before I have to leave. My eyes stay nervously focused on my phone as I’m hoping I’ll see a call or at least a text from Christian come through, but there’s nothing. I guess he really isn’t going to make an appearance before I leave, despite the clothes he left for me. So, before I go, I decide to leave a note promising him I’ll be back in a few hours and asking him to wait for me. Feeling the heavy burden of defeated acceptance, I slip the piece of paper I’d written on from the pad on the desk in the same place he’d left a note for me, just as Evan knocks on the door to hurry me along.

“Coming!’ I kiss my fingertips and press them into the note, then hurry across the room, but when I pull open the door, it’s not my CPO standing there waiting for me.

“Good, you’re ready,” Christian says. He’s dressed in a black tuxedo cut so immaculately that he might have been sewn into it. My eyes sweep over him, greedily drinking him in until I’m flushed with want, and he smirks. “I was right about the dress. It looks absolutely stunning on you.”

“Thank you…” I reply, my mouth dry. I swallow, and force my eyes away from the taut stretch of his pristine white shirt across his chest. “What are you doing?”

“You have a party to attend, I’m here to escort you.” From behind his back, he pulls out a single long stemmed rose with inky petals and hands it to me.

I stare down at it for a long, drawn out beat, then smile. “The Black Rose.”

“Exactly.” He leans in and brushes his lips lightly against my cheek, making me shiver, then moves up to speak softly in my ear. “And once the party is over, you are mine. Understood?”

Oh.

“Yes,” I breathe back.

I feel him smile against my ear. “Yes, what?”

“Yes, Sir.

“Good. Now come, it’s rude to be late.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 20

videoblocks-aerial-close-up-city-lights-and-dense-traffic-on-streets-of-new-york-at-night_rfp0cdw9x_thumbnail-full01

I hate the color of the carpet in the hallway outside Scott’s office. There’s too much red in the mottled fibers and I find it distracting as I pace back and forth, listening to Jacki’s concerns through the phone.

“My author is getting impatient. Four book stores are now completely sold out and the 2nd print has been delayed again.”

“This is a good problem to have,” I remind her. “You’ve moved over 12,000 units in two weeks, and despite being sold out in the brick and mortar stores, the online sales aren’t slowing down. This is a bestseller, and that is all you need to be telling your author right now. We’ll handle the semantics, she should be focusing on her next book.”

“I’m trying, but people are relentless online. She’s getting hounded on Twitter and people are starting to complain in their Goodreads reviews. Can’t you do something with the printers? She’ll relax if she at least knows something is moving.”

“I’ll make a call.”

“Thank you, Ana.”

“Hey, don’t thank me. You’ve moved more copies this month than GSP has on any other release in the last two years. You’re my superstar right now. Anything you need, I’m here for you.”

“I guess that’s what happens when you’re passionate about a project instead of just going through the motions, huh?”

“Funny how that works. Now go find me more diamonds in the rough. I’ll call the printers.”

“Right away, Mrs. Grey.”

“Bye, Jacki.” I smile as I hang up the phone, feeling a tremendous amount of pride in the first successful release under my tenure at GSP. I knew romance was a huge genre, but even I hadn’t expected numbers like these. It takes a lot of the pressure off of The Black Rose, and has my hopes up about new projects to help GSP expand over the next year.

“Ana?” Scott calls. I frown, then set a reminder on my phone to call the printing press back in Seattle before hurrying back inside.

It’s a little strange how different working in the New York office is from Seattle. Just as Grey Publishing is located in the same building as GEH, GSP NY resides on the eighth floor of the Gallagher Corporation tower in lower Manhattan. As a result, this branch has the best amenities available. Multiple conference rooms with expensive tech to aid in meetings, gourmet coffee in the break rooms to ease the mid-afternoon slump. It’s almost depressing how much better the view is, or how much bigger Scott’s office is than mine, but there are downsides too.

Everyone is on edge. All the time. The few people who have bothered to talk to me at all refuse to address me as Ana for fear of being too informal, and the organic conversations and sharing of ideas I’ve worked tirelessly to promote in my own office are completely absent from the few meetings I’ve attended with Scott. There’s too much fear. Too much competition. And today, that competitive spirit seems to be in full swing between Scott and I, though I can’t fathom why.

It’s been ten hours since the release date for The Black Rose was officially announced to the public, and he hasn’t moved from the computer since. Every thirty seconds, Walter Daves and I watch him refresh the matrix page so he has the most up to date pre-order numbers possible. But no matter how high they climb, he doesn’t seem satisfied. I’m starting to suspect that he won’t be as long as the numbers are less than what was on the report from Jacki’s sales this morning.

“What should we be at?” Walter asks nervously.

“There’s no should,” I say quickly. “These are all pre-sales. Your book hasn’t even been released yet.”

“Still…” Scott mumbles. He begins clicking his tongue as he refreshes the page again, but before the number repopulate Carmen pokes her head through the open door and raps her knuckles against the metal frame.

“I’ve got five minutes before my next meeting,” she says. “Any updates?”

Immediately, Scott’s attitude changes. He sits up straight and beams as brightly as my daughter did the first time she saw her pony. “Over a thousand now, and getting stronger by the hour.”

“Excellent,” Carmen replies. “Hopefully we’ll be over 2,500 by tomorrow’s announcement party. This is great work, team. Take some time to celebrate, you’ve earned it.”

“Thank you, Carmen,” Scott says. “Ana here was skeptical at first, but hopefully now she’ll see that there’s a method to my madness.”

I turn and blink in his direction, somehow managing to keep my mouth from dropping open in shock. There’s a method to his madness? Is he really intending to take sole credit for this? Nevermind that I’m the one who spent the last two months pouring through every single word to make it the best it could possibly be, while he’s never even read the thing in its entirety. The author is sitting right fucking here! And while I might still have some concern over what will happen once pre-sales are over and this book actually hits the shelves, and the hands of the critics, why would he express that doubt in front of Daves when the book has already gone to press and there’s nothing more he can do?

God damn it.

“We all ended up on the same page,” Carmen says. “That’s what’s really important. Congratulations, Mr. Daves.”

“Thank you, Ms. Gallagher.”

She winks, then hurries off to her meeting and I glare at Scott as he reaches down to refresh the page again. The pre-order column jumps another sixty numbers higher, and he lets out a boastful laugh.

“You know this really is excellent, considering these numbers are just for pre-sales. I bet once The Black Rose hits shelves, we’ll move fifteen, twenty thousand units in the first few weeks easily. You’ve done it, Walter. This has best seller written all over it.”

“Really?” There’s an uneasiness in his voice that mirrors my own, which only makes what Scott said to Carmen all the worse.

“Really,” Scott confirms. “In fact, I think Carmen’s right. We should celebrate. Why don’t I take the two of you out to dinner, and then we can head uptown for some drinks?”

“Tonight?” I ask.

“Yeah, tonight. What? You don’t eat dinner on Thursdays?”

“No, of course I do, I just…” Walter leans back in his chair next to me, bouncing his knee with nerves and avoiding eye contact. The truth is, Luke and Alexis should be landing at JFK in a few hours and I’m supposed to be meeting them and Damien Beaufort at ten. But I also am keenly aware that I am the sole person who represents Walter now. It’s my job to be by his side, to champion his work, and to be there when he needs support, just the same as Lydia was there for me only a year ago. And from the look on his face, now is when he needs support.

“You know what? You’re right, Scott. We should be celebrating.” I reach over and place a gentle hand on Daves’ forearm. “The hard part’s over, Walter. Now it’s time to bask in your success.”

He smiles. “Thank you, Mrs. Grey.”

“How many times do I have to ask you to call me Ana?”

“Sorry.” He blushes. “Ana.”

“Well, it sounds like it’s settled then,” Scott says. “Meet for dinner at eight, then we’ll head over to LAVO.”

“LAVO?”

“It’s a place I know. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

“Fine.” I give one last reassuring smile to Walter, then gather my things to go. As I exit Scott’s office, I hurry and fish out my phone to text Luke so that he can change the location of our meeting. Though, if I’m going to sandwich Beaufort in with Walter and Scott, Woods might become a problem.

I find him in the lobby, sitting in the same chair he’s occupied all day. He looks bored out of his mind, tapping his finger on the arm of his chair with each tick of the second hand on the clock.

“I’m so sorry, Evan. I didn’t think I’d be here this long today.”

“Don’t worry about it, Ana. We headed back to the hotel?”

“Mhm.” He reaches for my bag, which I hand over gratefully before leading the way to the elevator and out of the building. We’re not travelling with a car this time, so I reach out into the street to hail a cab, which isn’t an easy task at seven PM on a weeknight. Eventually though, we get a ride and I make it back to the hotel with just enough time to change and freshen up.

“Should I call for a dinner reservation?” Woods asks while I dig through my things for my room key. I bite my lip, and glance up at him with guilt that I hope is better concealed than I imagine it to be. Luke was always able to tell when I was lying, I can only pray that’s not the case for Woods too.

“Actually, I’ve got a lot of work from the Seattle office to deal with still. I think I’ll stay in for the rest of the night.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s been a long day. I’m just going to draw a bath, get my reading done, and order room service.”

“Okay. Can I order something for you?”

“No, I’m good. Seriously, take the night to yourself. I’m sure you need a night off just as badly as I do.”

“Alright. I’m just next door if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Evan.”

“Sure thing, Ana.” He waits until I’m securely in my room before retiring to his, and I watch through the peephole in my door until the hallway is empty. Once I’m sure I’m in the clear, I strip away my work clothes and make my way back to the bathroom to pull out my hair straightener. With traffic, I have only have about fifteen minutes to get ready and into a car if I’m going to make it to the restaurant in time, and I spend the first five of those deciding what I’m going to wear.

Google tells me that LAVO is a nightclub, and finding something appropriate amongst the clothes Gail packed for a business trip is a task all on it’s own. Eventually, I decide on an immaculately cut black dress that makes me feel powerful and in control, then work to get my hair as sleek and straight as possible. My eye shadow is darker and smokier than I normally wear it, and my eyeliner is thicker and jet black. I forgo a bold color on my lips, ensuring my look is strong rather than sexy, then pick up my purse and shoes and make for the door.

I feel a little ridiculous sneaking down the hallway, like the Pink Panther. I even go as far as to duck beneath the peephole to Woods’ door on the off chance he happens to be looking out and bypass the elevator for the stairs to prevent the high pitched ping from drawing attention to my exit. My ears warm with guilt the entire way down the thirteen flights of stairs, which I take in stockinged feet. Countless lessons in the past have me hyper aware of how wrong it is to ditch my CPO like this, but I ignore every instinct that tells me to go back.

I’m not without protection. Luke will be with me.

The pep-talk does little to bolster my confidence, but I get to the lobby and out the main doors all the same. A man is exiting a taxi right in front of my hotel, so there’s no need for me to wait for a car. I simply flash him a grateful smile, slide into the empty back seat, and slip the driver the piece of paper with the address of my destination.

We start with dinner at Perla in the village, then make our way up to midtown for LAVO. To my surprise, I actually recognize the neighborhood where the club is located quite well. It’s only two blocks away from the Plaza Hotel, which is where Christian and I stayed during that first fateful trip to New York.

Seeing the beautiful building standing tall and proud at the end of the street haunts me with memories. They’re not necessarily bad. Despite how that trip ended, there was a lot of good between Christian and I that week. But good or bad, the memories make me feel Christian’s presence, as strongly as if he were standing right next to me. And that presence hangs like a spector over what I’m going to do tonight.

Focus, Ana. You’re doing this for him.

“We can skip the line,” Scott announces. “They know me here.”

“Thank god,” Walter replies. “I thought we were going to be stuck out here for hours.” I follow his gaze over the crowd of people queued up along the side of the building, but when Scott wraps his fingers around my arm to lead me along beside him, I pull out of his grip.

“I actually need to make a phone call really quick. I’ll meet you inside.”

“Grey won’t let you off the leash even one night, huh?”

Whatever warmth I’d managed to fake through my inner turmoil vanishes instantly. I narrow my eyes and take a step back. “I’d be very careful about the way you talk about my husband in front of me, Scott.”

“Oh, come on, Ana–”

“No.” I let the cold refusal lay between us, growing heavier and heavier under my piercing stare, until he finally nods and turns, uncomfortably, back towards the building. I smile at Walter as a way of apology for the awkward exchange, then motion towards an empty part of the sidewalk. “Excuse me.”

Turning, I make my way to the end of the building and duck around the corner where I can lurk in the shadows of the alley. My hands seem to shake as I take out my phone and read the text I missed from Luke an hour ago telling me he and Alexis have arrived and Beaufort has agreed to the venue change. I quickly reply that I’ve arrived at LAVO, but once the text has been sent, a shiver runs up my back and I freeze. I feel him again. Christian. Like he’s standing here with me. Watching me. Warning me. I let my head fall back against the wall and take several steadying breaths.

He’s in Seattle. This is for the good of your family. Get it together, Anastasia.

My phone vibrates in my hand and I glance down to see the text from Luke telling me that he and Alexis are on route, so I quickly make my way back out to the main street and through the front entrance of the club. There is a litany of groans and complaints that follow me as the bouncer opens the velvet rope for me to pass, but it all melds into the music and hum of conversation as I step into the club.

Scott and Walter are already seated at a table when I find them, and Walter seems slightly uncomfortable with the too loud music, dim lighting, and crowds of drunk 20 somethings dancing through the clouds pouring from the strategically placed fog machines. Scott, on the other hand, looks overjoyed as he’s greeted by everyone who passes the table like he’s walked into an episode of Cheers. I sit and let them talk amongst themselves, staring nervously at my phone for the notification that Luke has arrived, praying I won’t see anything from Woods or Christian.

“What’ll you drink, Ana?” Scott shouts over the bumping bass. I glance up and discover a cocktail waitress standing over us, looking expectantly down at me.

“Just a water, please. Thank you.”

“Oh, no,” Scott says. “We’re celebrating, Ana, you’re not having just water. She’ll have a Cosmopolitan.” He leans into me conspiratorially, but speaks loudly enough that I’m sure both Walter and the waitress can hear. “It’s what the girls on Sex and the City drink. You’re going to love it.”

I raise an eyebrow at him, then shake my head and face the waitress. “I’ll have a double Hendricks on the rocks with lime, please.”

She nods, then scribbles my order down on the notepad in her hand. “Coming right up.”

“Tequila, huh?” Scott asks, nodding in approval. “I didn’t realize that’s the kind of night we’re having. Alright.” He bobs his head to the beat of the music until our waitress returns with our drinks, then he holds his above the table for a toast. “Here’s to Walter and The Black Rose!”

I lift my drink in the air, then throw it back in one, burning gulp. Cringing away from the bite of the alcohol, I sink my teeth into the wedge of lime on the side of my glass and then wait for warmth of the alcohol to relax away my trepidation about tonight.

“Let’s do another!” Scott yells, holding up his hand to flag down the waitress again. She nods once she sees him he pointing to our empty glasses, then Scott turns to continue congratulating Walter. When he lowers his hand though, he brings it down to rest on my exposed knee.

“Excuse me,” I say, pushing his hand away and picking up my illuminated phone from the table. “I’ll be back.”

“We’ll be waiting,” Scott says, winking. I grimace, but turn away from the table without another word. Luke’s text says that they’re in a private room, so I make my way towards the entrance of the club, glancing over my shoulder as I go to ensure no one is following me.

“Hi, my name is Anastasia Grey,” I tell the supermodel-thin hostess holding the clipboard at the front doors. “I think my party is already here… reservation under Luke Sawyer.”

She scans the list in her hands, then smiles up at me. “Yes, Mrs. Grey. If you’ll follow me.”

We walk down the one clear path, designated with thick charcoal colored carpet, around the dancefloor to the back of the club. There’s a hallway there that’s darker without the flashing strobes and spotlights, and fairly quiet despite the enormous speakers only few feet away on the other side of the left wall. At the end of the hallway, Luke stands before a closed door, arms folded over his chest. He relaxes his intimidating stance as we approach, but even after the hostess has turned and left us alone, he doesn’t take me inside.

“Where’s Alexis?” I ask.

“Outside. I thought we should feel this guy out before we just send her off with him. She might not be an ally, but if he turns out to be someone who might hurt her, we’re not just going to hand her over and walk away.”

I nod. “Yeah. Of course.”

“You ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“We can still walk away, you know. Just say the word and I’ll get you out of here. I’ll take Alexis back to Seattle tonight and you can go back to Grey without him being any the wiser.” As if to echo his sentiments, my phone begins to vibrate in my hand. I look down and see Christian’s name on the screen. A picture of him from our wedding day smiles back at me, almost as though it’s trying to coerce me away from the room, but I reject the call and slip my phone back into my purse.

“No, I’m going in there. This ends tonight.”

“All of it,” he affirms. “After this we’re done. For good.”

“I know.”

“Then I’m right behind you.” He steps aside to let me pass and after taking one last second to prepare myself, I reach out for the door handle and push my way inside.

Mr. Beaufort is tall. That’s the first thing I notice. He’s leaning over a fireplace at the wall opposite from me, and he doesn’t flinch or look over when I enter. Even with him facing away, there’s something imposing about his presence.

“Mr. Beaufort?” I say.

“Anastasia Grey,” he replies, finally turning to face me. I’m pleased to discover that he’s at least attractive, which should go some way to keep Alexis pleased with this arrangement should it work out. His hair is dark, and his features severe, but his eyes are an almost hypnotizing shade of caramel. There’s undeniable strength in the set of his broad shoulders and chest, but those eyes… they could melt ice in January.

“I’m glad you agreed to meet with me,” I say, standing taller so I don’t feel so small standing before him.

“The pleasure is all mine.” He steps towards me and reaches out for my hand, but when I give it to him he doesn’t close his fingers around mine in a firm handshake. Instead, he takes my hand with unexpected gentility and draws it up to his lips. “Your husband speaks of you often. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for some time.”

“I trust I needn’t remind you that this meeting should be kept between the two of us?”

He smiles. “Don’t worry, Anastasia. Discretion is a very important part of what I do.”

“Good. Then let’s begin, shall we?” I turn and gesture back to the table, then follow him as he takes a seat. Luke moves a chair up close to mine, reaches into the leather case he’s brought along with him, and removes a single file.

“The girl’s name is Alexis Young,” I begin, passing the file across the table. “She’s twenty-four years old, and she’s been in the lifestyle for five years.”

“Previous dominants?” he asks.

“Several. She worked in a club in downtown Seattle for just under a year.”

“With Elena?”

“Yes. She was very popular.”

“Hm.” He flips over the front flap of the file, but I can tell by the set of his jaw that he’s less than enthused by my answer.

“For the last year, though, she did devote herself to only one dominant. I gather that relationship functioned very well.”

“Then why did it end?”

“He, um… he’s deceased.”

“I see.” Beaufort looks down at the paperwork in his hands again, scanning the dossier fairly quickly, until he comes upon something that piques his interest. “Not a lot as far as hard limits goes…”

I shake my head. “She’s very open to the needs of the dominant she serves.”

“That’s good.” He pulls out a photo of Alexis in a position uncomfortable for me to look at, though he inspects the photograph with the same diligence that an artist might use to divine inspiration from a raw lump of clay. I glance over at Luke, who also seems to be doing everything he can to avoid eye contact, and as I see the reflection of my own unease in the man who’s never once shown any sign of disquiet in my presence, the reason for all of the nerves I felt before this meeting becomes glaringly clear. I finally begin to feel the weight of what I’m really doing. Alexis was right before. I don’t know anything about this lifestyle. Not really. And sitting here with this man, talking to him about Alexis like she’s a commodity to be traded while he pours over the most intimate details of her life and sexual desires, feels… wrong.

This is wrong.

“She’s absolutely beautiful,” he purrs with lust. “I’d like to meet her.”

I stare blankly back at his expectant gaze, unable to move and unable to speak. The lump inside my throat refuses to budge, no matter how many times I try to swallow. I’m roiled in conflict over the desire to leave this room and the need to stay. A part of me that’s laid dormant under threats and fear has suddenly awoken, and she’s disgusted with this new me that’s taken a need as pure as protecting my family this far. Now the two halves war against each other for dominion, leaving me impotent in the middle.

“I’ll get her,” Luke says at last. He pushes away from the table and walks to a side door that leads outside. Beaufort stares at me with relative interest, but doesn’t try to further any conversation. That is until Luke opens the door, letting in both Alexis and the cold bite of the night air.

Beaufort stands. “Miss Young.”

I turn to look at her, hoping to gather any sign of her desire to be here from her face so as to ease this new found sense of guilt and shame, but she looks down at the ground.

“Mr. Beaufort. Sir.”

“Come here.” She immediately moves towards him, and Luke shadows her every step until they reach the table. It’s only then that I’m able to get up, and as I step back away from the table, I fight both the overwhelming urge to pull the girl away from Beaufort’s hungry gaze, and the part of me that wants to hold her there at any cost. He paces around her, evaluating her the same way Christian looks over a new sports car. “Kneel.” She does, and he smiles at me, clearly satisfied.

There’s an interview of sorts, though neither Luke nor I take any part. He asks her questions, she answers. He gives her commands, she obeys. Even when he asks her to undress right there in the middle of the room.

“Perfect,” he says, reaching out to tug one of her taut, exposed nipples. “Just perfect.”

I shudder.

“Thank you, Sir,” Alexis replies. His fingers tighten until she whimpers, a small castigation for speaking out of turn. Her lips press together in regret, but when Beaufort turns to look back at me, his eyes are alight with excitement.

“I’ll take her back with me for the rest of this week and put her through a kind of trial run. If this works out, I’ll be happy to send you a finders fee.”

“Finders fee?” I shake my head in disgust. “No… please, don’t.”  

“Surely you must want something, Anastasia.” I shake my head again and he furrows his brow in response, but seems to let it go. “Get dressed, Miss Young. We’ll go now.”

“Yes, Sir.”

She begins to put her clothes back on while Beaufort moves back to the fireplace to collect his jacket and briefcase. It’s the one second he’s even so much as taken his eyes off of her since Luke brought her in, and I pounce on it.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I whisper.

She raises an eyebrow. “Yeah.”

“You can tell me if it’s not. You don’t have to leave with him if…”

“Ana, I’m good.” She smiles as she pulls her sweater over her head and slings her bag over her shoulder, then grips my arm with gratitude. “I haven’t had anything to be this excited about since I lost Charles. I mean look at him, he’s… he’s perfect.” Her eyes move over to Beaufort as he pulls his coat over his shoulders, and she starts to gnaw at her bottom lip.

I nod, though more out of defeat than acceptance. “If you want to go, then go. But… if you need anything, or if you need a way home, call me. You’re not alone, Alexis.”

“I know. Thank you, Anastasia.”

“Alexis,” Beaufort calls. He tilts his head a half of a degree to the side, a gesture for her to come, and she does. His hand folds posessively over hers and he begins to pull her from the room, but I stop them just before they reach the door.

“Alexis, wait!”

She looks back. “What?”

“The book. That was part of the deal. I want the book.”

“Oh, right. Excuse me, Sir.” Her hand starts digging through her bag as she walks towards me until she fishes out a very worn and beaten copy of a roughly bound manuscript. The title, Monster, is the only word on the cover page that’s visible through the creases in the paper.

“Deals a deal,” she says, passing the book to me.

“And this is it?” I ask. “This is the only copy?”

“Besides the one you already have. This one’s not even complete, so be prepared for a cliffhanger.” She laughs, but I turn and slip the manuscript into my bag without so much as a smile. When I turn back around, she’s already returned to Beaufort’s side.

“Thank you again, Anastasia,” he says. “I hope we’ll meet again soon.”

I nod blankly, actually hoping that once I leave this room I’ll never see him again. My stomach churns as I watch Alexis leave with him, and once the door closes behind them the last threads that hold me together snap. I start gasping as though I’m going to hyperventilate, and Luke quickly pulls me into his arms.

“Yeah,” he says, rubbing a comforting hand over my back and squeezing me tightly against him. “I thought this was coming.”

“What am I doing, Luke? How did I get here?”

“I don’t know.”

“She was dangerous. After what she did to Mia, after what she turned a blind eye to because of Gresham… there’s no telling what she would have done to get close to Christian. Especially with this in her hands.” I hold up the manuscript, then toss it on the table merely because I hate the way it feels in my hands. Luke does me one better. He picks it up, carries it over the fireplace, and tosses it into the flames. I fall back into one of the chairs, elbows on my knees, and let my head fall into my hands. “This is what she said she wanted. She wanted a dominant, I found her a dominant. Is that wrong?”

He ambles towards me, clearly choosing his next words carefully. “No. It’s not that you did something… wrong.”

“Then why do I feel like I just sold her like a piece of livestock?”

“Because this isn’t you.” He pulls me back up to my feet, holding me at arm’s length but keeping both hands on my shoulders. “This isn’t who you are, Anastasia. Don’t you see that? You’re letting your fear push you to do things that you normally would find abhorrent. You’re so scared of the ifs and maybes that you can’t even see where you’re letting these people lead you. That’s not the Anastasia I know. The Anastasia I know doesn’t need to sneak around behind people’s backs because she always does what’s right. She doesn’t need to make deals behind closed doors because she believes in what she’s doing enough to do it out in the open. This meeting, this is what Grey does. What Taylor does. What I do. This isn’t you. I agreed to help you because I didn’t know what else to do. Seeing you the way you were… I thought I was losing my best friend. But this, what we’re doing right now, this is how I actually lose you. This is how we all lose you. Because the person this is turning you into is not the Anastasia we all love.”

I let my head fall in shame. “I don’t know what happened. I just felt like I was trapped, you know? Like I was powerless. I just wanted to feel like I was doing something to protect us. To stop anything like that from happening ever again. I didn’t want to feel helpless anymore.”

“I know. But you’re not, Ana. What happened to you was fucked up, and I can’t even imagine what you’ve been going through since that night, but you are anything but powerless. Look at what you’ve done in the past few years. Look at where you are. Look at where your family is. It’s all because of you, and not because you made deals in the shadows. It’s because you always did it the right way. Hell, you faced down Elena Lincoln and won. You’re a boss-ass-bitch.”

I snort and quickly reach up to cover my smile. “Don’t make this a joke right now, I’m having a breakthrough.”

“Then you need to know that nobody thinks you’re weak. You have a strength that the rest of us who deal in secrets and schemes will never have. You have persistence, and patience, and love. No one can take that from you. Not Kozlowski, or Harrington, or Alexis… Not even Andrew Lincoln.”

I nod. “I’m so sorry, Luke. You tried to tell me before but I was too wrapped up in all of this to understand what you were saying. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Just remember this the next time I try to talk you out of something. You’re always wrong, and I’m always right.”

I laugh again and the cathartic release ends the war between the two versions of myself that has been raging inside of me. I take a deep, easy breath, and release months worth of tension. Peace washes over me and in the absence of uncertainty and unease, I finally feel myself again.

“Ready to go back?” Luke asks.

“Yeah.”  He wraps an arm around me as he leads me from the room, back out into the club. The crowd on the dance floor seems much more rowdy as undoubtedly more and more alcohol is passed around. I stand up on my tiptoes to search through the sea of faces for Scott or Walter, but our table is empty. I guess they could be at the bar, or maybe they had enough and left me behind. But either way, I figure I’ll send a text to tell them I’ve had enough for tonight.

“Can we go back to my hotel?” I ask, looking up at Luke.

“Yeah, I’ll get us a cab.”

 

Twenty minutes later, we pull up outside of The Dominick, and Luke gets out so he can walk me up to the front doors.

“Do you want me to come up?” he asks. “We can talk if you need to.”

“No, thanks. I’m just going to call Christian and get in bed. It’s been a long day.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“Not on the phone. I don’t even know how to tell him… I lied. I’ve been telling him I was fine for months when in reality, I’m anything but fine. How do I explain this to him?”

“Well, it’s Grey, so I’d start by taking your clothes off.”

“Luke!” My lips scrunch together in irritation, and I throw an annoyed punch into his bicep, which he sluffs off with a roll of his eyes.

“The man is in love with you, Anastasia. Like, really in love with you. He’ll forgive you. Just tell him the truth, say your sorry, and move forward.”

“Yeah.” I nod. “You’re right. I’ll uh… I’ll see you back home?”

“Sixteen more watches of It Happened One Night couldn’t stop me.”

I laugh and pull him into a hug. “Thank you, Luke. For everything.”

“Ah, get the fuck out of here with that. You know I’m always here.” I smile, and kiss his cheek before turning and heading into the hotel. It’s late, so the lobby is empty and I take the elevator ride up to the fourteenth floor alone. Woods isn’t outside my door waiting for me, so I assume my absence has gone unnoticed. But once I slip my key into the pad and step inside my room, that assumption proves to be false.

My husband is sitting in a chair by the bed, a half empty bottle of brown liquor at his side.

“Christian,” I gasp.

“Welcome back, Anastasia,” he says without looking at me. He lifts the glass dangling from his fingers and drains it in one long pull. Once his drink is gone, he slams the glass down on the table with too much force and gets out of his seat.

I wince. “What are you doing here?”

“Me? What am I doing? That’s funny, I came here to ask you the same fucking question.”

Shit. He knows.

Next Chapter

Chapter 19

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I stare hopelessly at my computer screen, my fingers tapping mindlessly on my mouse button. I’ve read this book so many times now that the words are starting to meld together and it’s getting harder and harder to pinpoint exactly where this story goes off the rails. Every time I think I’m close to making a cut that will tighten the up the plot and make it flow better, I hit a wall because of some minute detail buried the weeds that ends up being crucial evidence to Peter Gillette, detective extraordinaire, solving the crime.

“Ugh, stop being so overly complicated and convoluted!” I shout in frustration at my screen, then burst into a fit of stress induced laughter and let my head fall onto my desk. I’m very seriously considering having a discussion with Christian about changing our names and disappearing into the night, just to escape the torture that has been The Black Rose,  until the long droning page from my desk phone interrupts my inner pity party.

“Mrs. Grey, Ms. Gallagher is on line one for you.”

“Thank you, Penny.” With a heavy sigh, I reach forward and pick up the receiver on the phone, then push the button next to the blinking light.

“Good afternoon, Carmen.”

“Hi, Ana. I thought I’d just check in. Are you ready for next week’s big announcement?”

“Oh, I’ve got it circled on my calendar.” I bite my lip as I hope and pray she doesn’t pick up the biting sarcasm behind that statement, but thankfully, if she does, she chooses to ignore it.

“Glad to hear it. Have you been to New York before?”

My heart seems to skip a beat as a quick flash of my memories of New York runs through my mind. The Empire State Building. My run in with Leila and being chased through the streets by the man I now was Anthony Kommer. Jack Hyde in my dressing room at the Today show.

“Yeah.” I swallow. “Yeah, I’ve been there before.”

“Great. And Scott’s got you set up with a hotel? Things to do? Sites to see?”

“Yes, he’s been very helpful.”

“Excellent. I’ve got a really good feelings about next week. I’m glad you and Scott are working better together. It really shows.”

Yeah, because he got is way. “I just hope it all reflects in sales.”

“It will. I’ll see you next week, Anastasia.”

“Looking forward to it, Carmen.” I hang up the phone and let out a heavily burdened breath. Five weeks ago, I was determined to make this book into a success. Today, with my deadline quickly approaching, it feels less like a challenge and more like a suicide mission.

I turn to my screen once more, repeating to myself over and over again that this book is going to make or break my career, and try to get back to work. But as I being hacking my way through the block of overly descriptive text I’m working to make less wordy and flowery, there’s an unexpected knock on my door.

“Come in,” I call, and Woods steps inside.

“Hey, Ana.”

“Evan?”

“Luke Sawyer is here to see you. Should I tell him you’re busy?”

“Uhhhhh…” My eyes flit between the manuscript and the clock before I shake my head. “No, that’s okay. Let him in.”

Woods nods and steps out, and thirty seconds later, Luke slides in through the still open door before closing it behind him.

“How’s it hanging, big shot?” he asks, flopping down into the chair across from me. I exhale, letting my lips flap in a very unlady like manner as I try to release my frustration.

“I have a manuscript that I’m supposed to turn into a bestseller by next week, but I’m afraid it’s going to be dead on arrival.”

“So, why are you pursuing it?”

“The author was previously our biggest seller, he’s got the support of the New York office and apparently that overrides what I think… it’s a long story.”

“Well, I’m glad I don’t have time to hear it.” I narrow my eyes at him and he flashes his signature broad, teasing grin back at me. It never fails to put me in a good mood, but I don’t really want to be cheered up right now. I want to break something and scream as loud as I can.

I turn away to look at my computer again so he won’t be able to tell I’m fighting a smile, but he leans over my desk with his hands folded lazily in front of him. “You wanna go to lunch with me?”

I frown. “I really, really wish I could, but I can’t. This book is going to press next week and there’s going to be a big party in New York over it and Greenwich is pulling out all the stops on marketing… If I fail at this, I’m going to lose my job.”

“Maybe taking a break for a few hours will help clear your mind.”

“I’m sorry, Luke.”

His good humor disappears and his expression turns deadly serious. “Ana. I really think you should come to lunch with me.”

“Wha–” My voice dies off as he raises an eyebrow and his words from Calliope’s party ring through my head.

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

“Oh, right. Yeah, uh… I can’t take an hour or two. Let me just…” I reach out for my phone and hit zero to call reception. Penny picks up almost instantly.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“Penny, I’m going to head out for lunch and I won’t be available by phone. Have Abby push anything on my calendar until later this afternoon.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

After hanging up, Luke jumps out of his seat and I reach down with shaking hands for my bag. The truth is, though I knew this moment was coming, I haven’t really thought much about what I was going to do or say to Alexis once it did. We have no idea what her motives are or who she’s working with, so I don’t know if I’m about to walk into something hostile. That doesn’t change my mind about going, though. If anything, the unknown makes all of this more urgent and has me more anxious to nullify whatever threat she poses to my husband or my child. But summoning the courage to put myself back into everything I fought so hard to escape last year doesn’t come easy. I know going into this the way we are, without any help from Taylor, is a calculated risk. If something were to happen, Christian would have no idea where to even look for us.

“Hold on,” I say as Luke reaches for the door. There’s a notepad on my desk that I rip the top sheet of paper from and scribble three words.

Taylor. Ask Mia.

“What’s that for?” Luke asks, and I swallow as it tuck it under my keyboard to hide in case Woods happens to come in and glance over my desk while I’m away.

“Just in case,” I reply, then sling my purse over my shoulder and march out of my office with a straight back and squared shoulders.

Woods stands and fixes his tie as Luke and I make our way across the main floor, but I stop him with a gesture of my hand and sweet smile. Thankfully, when I speak, I’m able to keep my voice calm and level.

“I think we’re going to be okay, Evan. We’re just going to lunch and Luke here has a lot of experience keeping an eye on me.”

“Uh, Mrs. Grey… Mr. Grey–”

“Isn’t here, and what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. And if he calls for me while I’m out, tell him I said he can talk to me about it tonight.”

“But, Ana–”

“Seriously, Evan. We’ll be fine.” He looks at me uncertainly, clearly warring with the decision, so I squeeze his arm and hurry from the office before he has the chance to argue further. But when Luke opens the door for me, I can see the hint of empathy behind his eyes. He knows full well the wrath Woods will catch from Christian if he finds out I ditched my security, so I make a mental note to ensure I get the brunt of the storm just in case word of my absence gets back to him.

In the car, Luke finally lets down his lunch pretense and turns serious again. He switches off the radio and turns into the light downtown traffic with as much focus as I imagine he once used patrolling the border while he served in the military.

“She works the late morning shift at the Starbucks across the street from GEH,” he explains. “I think because it’s a subtle way to keep tabs on Grey. It’s where Andrea gets his coffee every morning so it tells her when he arrives at the office and she can set up watch, which she usually does…. Over there.”

He points to a delicatessen a little ways down the street with large windows at the front of the store. It’s a place I’m familiar with because it’s where Christian orders his lunch from nearly every day. I’ve even met him there a few times to eat together since I’ve started working downtown again. The tiny, eat-in dining room is always busy, so it’s easy to be overlooked. It’s one of the reasons why Christian likes it so much. Directly behind the windows at the front of the store is a long wooden bar where most people eat their lunches while pouring over laptops. I’ve even seen a few of my authors camped out there with a reuben on rye trying to finish up their manuscripts before I come break down their door. Honestly, if she’s looking for a place to blend in, it’s not a bad strategy. No one would bother her or question why she was there, and GEH would always be firmly in her sights.

Luke pulls into a miraculously open space along the curb just a few store storefronts down from the Starbucks where Alexis should be finishing up work, shifts his car into park, and then turns to me with imploring eyes.

“You’re really sure you want to do this?”

“Dead sure,” I reply, not missing a beat. But my confidence doesn’t seem to have any affect on his.

“If she really is working for someone, Ana, confronting her means that they’re going to know we’re onto them. This could turn into Lincoln all over again.”

I swallow. “If she’s working for someone who plans to come after us, then it’s already Lincoln all over again. Last time, I sat around and waited. I let Leila follow me, I gave Gia the benefit of the doubt even though everything she did set off red flags, and it didn’t keep me, or Christian, or Calliope safe. It only made him stronger. I’m not going to nothing anymore, Luke. If there’s someone else out there, I want to know about it. And I want him to know that I’m coming for him.”

The conflict displayed on Luke’s face is almost painful to witness, but after several seconds deliberation, he sighs, nods, and opens his door. I follow suit and come around the car to meet him, but before I can charge forward for the coffee shop, he grabs me and pulls me into the inlet around the main doors of a thrifty clothing store.

“Do you remember the sting we set up against Elena Lincoln? The night we found out about the club?”

“Yes.”

“What did Taylor say to you?”

I search through the vibrant memories of that night for the dull ones of the time I spent with Taylor earlier in the evening. “If I tell you to do something, you do it.”

“Exactly,” Luke replies. “Now stay close.”

He turns around the corner first and walks slowly to the front of the Starbucks. I try the best I can to mirror his causal walk, but it’s difficult in the skin tight skirt and stilettos I wore to work today. After taking a brief look through the front window, he turns to me and nods, then leans against the brick facade and waits. “Keep an eye out for Andrea or Ros or… anyone from GEH that might recognize you,” he warns me.

I nod, then reach into my bag and pull out a pair of oversized sunglasses. The sunshine we enjoyed for Calliope’s birthday party is long gone now and the sky is dark with gloomy looking clouds, so the sunglasses are as out of place as they are unnecessary. But they do their job at concealing my face, at least at a cursory glance.

We wait for several minutes that feel like hours as my nerves mount and my feet start to ache. I glance down at the watch around my wrist probably thirty times, watching the hands tick away five minutes, then ten, until finally the door opens and the girl with the cloud of dark hair we’ve been waiting for saunters out onto the sidewalk. She turns up the block with only a quick look over at the imposing structure across the street, which shows none of the damage it sustained only a few weeks before.

I take a breath and step away from the wall. “Alexis!”

“Ana, no!” Luke hisses, but I ignore him. Alexis stops a few paces away from the front door, and whirls around to face us. I pull the sunglasses from my face and try to immolate the same, intimidating glare I’ve seen Christian use a thousand times. The curiosity behind her eyes vanishes the moment she recognizes me, and after gaping at the two of us for a few minutes she turns to run.

“God damn it,” Luke grumbles. He shoots me a look that tells me just how pissed he is, and takes off after her. Thankfully, running doesn’t seem to be her forté, because he catches up to her quickly, cutting off her route and forcing her to turn around, where I’m already waiting for her.

“Anastasia,” she pants.

“We need to talk,” I reply coolly. “Come with me.”

She turns and looks at Luke, who stands behind her like a brick wall and gestures her to follow after me. I lead her back to car and open the door to the backseat for her. She hesitates before climbing in, but with the crowd of people milling over the sidewalks, blocking her escape route, and my ex-CPO towering tall and intimidating behind her, she doesn’t have much choice to come along with us.

I reach down to flip the switch on the inside of the door to turn on the child locks before I close her inside and meander around the passenger’s side. Luke glares at me over the roof of the car before I can climb in.

“What happened to, if I tell you to do something, you do it?”

“I couldn’t wait.”

He lets out a heavy breath before yanking open the door and angrily stepping inside. I follow suit, and then put on my best poker face as he merges back into traffic.

We drive to a restaurant on the other side of the city. One that’s upscale and that you’d generally need a reservation made weeks in advance to get into. But when the maître d’ recognizes me, he leads us back to a private dining table without hesitation, despite the fact Luke is dressed in jeans and Alexis is still in her Starbucks uniform.

“What can I get for you to drink, Mrs. Grey?” he asks, after passing us the day’s custom menu.

“Iced tea, please. Alexis?”

She blinks at me in shock, then looks down at the menu. “Uh… I guess I’ll have the same.”

He nods, takes Luke’s order for a Coke, and disappears, leaving us alone to talk.

“Order what you want,” I tell Alexis, picking up my menu. “The food here is excellent.”

“What are you doing?” she asks, clearly suspicious.

“Treating you to lunch.” We stare at each other for a long beat. It’s clear she’s trying to figure out my angle, but I give her nothing to read into. I smile pleasantly, then return my attention to the menu. After the waiter returns with our drinks and takes our order, I fold my hands on the table and stare at her with purpose and as much confidence as I can summon.

“I know you’re watching us,” I say calmly. “I know you were following Mia, I know you were at the hospital when my sister had her baby, I know you were at the restaurant during my business lunch the other day, and I know you’ve been keeping tabs on my husband.”

“So you thought you’d bring me to lunch?”

“I want to know why.”

She scoffs, actually scoffs, and picks up her iced tea to take a drink without answering. I wait, not pushing her, not making any demands. Just staring at her expectantly.

“Look, I’m not going to tell you anything,” she says at last. “So you might as well save your money on this grossly overpriced restaurant and take me back. I don’t need all this pomp and circumstance from you.”

“Why? Is someone threatening you?”

“What?”

“We can protect you, you know. If someone is forcing you to watch us, we can protect you, hide you, set you up with everything could ever need or want. Just tell me who it is, and we’ll take care of it.”

She leans forward, elbow on the table, and rests her cheek on the heel of her hand. “Lincoln really did a number on you, huh?”

“Which should make you desperately want to cooperate with me,” I reply, a vague threat in my voice. “Because one way or another, you’re going to tell me who you’re working for. Whether it’s over lunch, or after my friend here has done whatever it is he has to do to get you to talk.”

“Lincoln’s dead, Anastasia. No one is getting paid anymore, so no one is coming for you. Congratulations, you won.” There’s a bitter bite to each of her words that isn’t lost on me.

“Then why are you following my family?”

She takes another drink and glances through the window behind me, at the panoramic view of the sound which is dark, and murky beneath the clouds. “I’m not a bad person,” she says at last. “I know you think I was part of what happened to you, but I really wasn’t. I never wanted to be. I didn’t spy on you like so many others did or try to sabotage Grey’s company. I’m not the villain you’ve made me out to be.”

“You threatened my sister-in-law. You talked her out of telling us what she knew about Gresham and stood by as he promised to harm each and every one of us.”

“I was trying to protect him.”

“Lincoln?”

“No, Charles.” I sit back, blinking. Charles isn’t a name I recognize until… I do. Charles Gresham. Mia said that Alexis was his favorite girl, that he requested her every time he came into the club, and when Christian finally shut it down, she’d yelled at him for taking away the only steady Dom she’d ever had.

“I know what happened to you that night,” she says, softly. “I’ve read every article and watched every news report about what went down in that apartment. You got the crazy girl and her psycho lover boy to keep you at Escala until he got there to finish what he’d started, but why do you think you had to wait for him at all? Where do you think he was?”

“He was with Gresham.”
“We were trying to leave,” she continues. “Charles never wanted to come after Grey, but he didn’t have a choice. If he didn’t do what Lincoln said, he’d expose him and Charles would have ended up in jail just like Elena. And eventually, he’d have met the same fate. We all would have, that became clear very quickly after… the asian kid, whatever his name was. He wasn’t going to keep any of us around.”

Hyun.

She breaks eye contact then, taking a moment to wipe away the tears pooling in her eyes.  I offer her the napkin in my lap, but she shakes her head and continues.

“Our bags were packed. Five more minutes and we would have been long gone. But we didn’t make it. Lincoln had gotten a key from somewhere and forced his way into the apartment. Charles did everything he could to stop him, to plead for our lives, but we both knew there wasn’t any hope. He had a can of gas in his hand and that’s not something you bring if you’re there to be reasoned with. Charles attacked him, but Lincoln was a better fighter than even I would have given him credit for. Still, it was enough for Charles to tell me to run. And I did. I ran from the building and waiting across the street, praying I would see Charles come through the front doors and whisk me away like we’d planned. But he didn’t. A few minutes later, I saw Lincoln walk out and… I knew. Part of me didn’t want to go up there and see it. I think I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it. But, I also knew that if there was any possibility that he was alive, he would be hurt and he would need my help.”

“So, I ran for the building, but I hadn’t even gotten all the way across the street before the apartment windows blew out. Fire and broken glass rained down on the street and, suddenly, there were people everywhere. Trying to get out of the building, trying to get a better look at the damage. Every police car in the city showed up, every fire truck, and I stood there, horrified, watching them pull people covered in burns out of the building on stretchers. I think that I was holding out hope that Charles would be one of them, but he wasn’t. He was gone.”

“Alexis…”

“He wasn’t just my Dom, Anastasia. He was my everything. I know he did things that were inexcusable, but I made excuses anyway. I looked past the things he had done and the people he had hurt, because none of that mattered to me as much as he did. I did things that will haunt me until the day I die, but I didn’t have a choice. Not because he commanded me to, or even asked. But because I knew that’s what it would take to protect him. Haven’t you ever had someone you loved so much you would do anything to keep them safe? Even if it was wrong?”

I take a breath and nod. She presses her lips together, blinks away the tears that seem determined to leak down her cheeks, and returns the gesture.

“I loved him more than I have ever loved anything in the world, and Lincoln took him from me. Because he was trying to get to you.”

“Alexis, I’m sorry. But you have to know that Christian and I had nothing to do with Gresham’s death. We didn’t even know he was involved until two days before he died.”

“I know. I’m not crazy like that Williams girl or Gia Matteo. I know what happened, I know why it happened, and I know who’s to blame. It was Andrew Lincoln, and he’s dead now too.”

“So why are you following us?”

“Us?” she repeats. “This has nothing to do with you, Anastasia.”

“You watched me from the cafe across the street from where I work. You were at that restaurant I went to last week. I know you were watching me, I heard you. And I know you’re following my husband and both of my sisters. We’ve seen you, Alexis.”

“He’s not easy to find.”

“Who?”

She blinks again and looks away, but this time it’s not to hide her tears. She looks off into the distance, like she’s seeing something that’s not here. “I followed Mia because she’s his favorite. I remember how much she used to talk about him, about how close they were. Wherever she was going, that seemed the most likely place I’d find him. Then the blonde girl who moved into Escala gave birth and I knew he’d be there, but he was never alone. I went to your work thinking he might stop by, but he never did. You live in a gated community, and then there’s another gate at your house, so that was out. The only chance I have left is GEH.”

“Christian?” I ask, too sharply. “You’re trying to get to Christian?”

She nods, and when I look into her eyes, I remember Christian saying something about how angry she had been after Elena’s club was shut down. That she’d yelled at him. Perhaps, since she can’t take revenge on Lincoln, she’s decided to go back to the source. If Christian had never shut down that club, none of this would have happened to her.

“She had his sister, Alexis. Mia was in danger in that club, he couldn’t stand by and let Elena continue on after what she did to Mia. To the other girls who didn’t want to be there. I know you did, and I’m sorry for what you lost, but he didn’t have a choice.”  

“I know.”

“Then why are you coming after him?”

“Because he’s a dominant,” she says, and my face goes blank. “I worked very closely with Elena Lincoln, Anastasia. I know all about his past. I saw the girls she’d bring to him. I was in the courtroom the day you put Elena away, I heard him testify that he engaged in the BDSM lifestyle.” She glances down at my hands. “I know exactly what those marks around your wrist are from. Cuffs right? The metal kind that bite if you struggle too hard against them.”

I too look down, then tug the sleeves of my blazer to try and hide the faded marks from the cuffs Christian used to restrain me the night before. “He’s married,” I say firmly.

“And who are you?” she asks. “What makes you so worthy?”

“We love each other.”

She rolls her eyes. “Love is cheap. Every girl in this city could love Christian Grey. He’s hot, rich, successful… He doesn’t need love. He needs someone who will give him everything he actually desires. Power. He needs someone who will let him own them. Who will fulfil every one of his fantasies. Who will mold themselves into exactly what he wants them to be. He needs a submissive.”

“You don’t even know him. You have no idea what he wants or needs.”

“Those marks on your wrist tell a different story. He wants the control, and I’m sure you give it to him up to a certain degree. You play with the idea of BDSM, give him just enough to make him think he’s satisfied, but it’s not your way of life. You won’t let him hurt you, let him use your body in any way he wants. You’ll never give yourself to him, not really, and he’ll come to see that.”

“And you think he’ll take you?”

“Eventually they all do. Men are simple, Anastasia. They only ever want two things. Pleasure, and the women who give it to them.”

Mostly, her confession is a relief. Not because it thrills me to have another woman chasing my husband, but because I know Christian would never betray me. However, there was another woman who once lusted after him, coveted him, and when he turned her away, she did everything she could to destroy our lives. So even if she’s not part of some new conspiracy against my family, she’s still a threat and I won’t leave here until that threat is contained.

“Why Christian?” I ask, crossing my arms and leaning back in my chair. She furrows her brow, but answers anyway.

“He’s perfect. He has the money to truly take care of any girl who serves him. He has the looks and the body to make him desirable. And he’s powerful. Enough so that men and women bend to his every command even without the threat of punishment. You have no idea how much that appeals to a girl like me.”

I shake my head. “This is city is full of men like him. Rich, powerful, wanting. There have to be a dozen Doms just like him around this city. Single, and waiting for a willing submissive.”

“No,” she sighs. “There isn’t. I worked at Kink, remember? I know every player in the Dominant game. Hell, I’ve done scenes with the majority of them. Most couldn’t provide half of what Grey could and the others are weak. Scared. Too timid to fulfil the role I need them to. I thought I’d never find a match like I had in Gresham ever again, until I found an early draft of the book you tried to kill in his final records. Elena’s book. Then I got to read about all the things that he’s done or was willing to do. Even in submission he was strong, and when she’d let him take over…” Her words stop as she shivers, and my muscles tense reflexively. When her eyes flash up at me with unconcealed want, my teeth grind together. “He’s the Holy fucking Grail.”

“Unobtainable. What a fitting metaphor.”

“We’ll see.”

The waiter reappears then, placing our plates of food in front of each of us. I put on a gracious smile as he wishes us a good meal, all while weighing my options. There’s a deep degree of desperation in dedicating your life to stalking someone who could never want you in return. And desperation is more dangerous than malice. This girl can tell me she isn’t the same as Leila or Gia all she wants, but I’ve seen the things she’s willing to do for what she desires. For what she claims to love. Her obsession puts Mia, Kate, Calliope, and myself at risk if she ever chooses to see any one of us as leverage or a way to get to get close to Christian. So, while I know something has to be done, without the threat of immediate violence, I’m not sure what that should look like. Do I leave here and find some way to punish her from the equation, like I did with Kozlowski? Or do I find a way to change her mind? Give her something greater than what she currently seeks.

“What if I helped you?” I blurt out, and she looks at me suspiciously.

“Excuse me?”

“You say you want a Dominant who will meet your needs, I can help you find him.”

“How? You’re not in the lifestyle. You don’t know anyone.”

“Christian’s not the only well connected Grey in this city. I know people, powerful people. I can help you.” That last bit was a bluff, but she seems to take the bait.

“I’m listening…”

“Stay away from my husband, stay away from my family, and I’ll deliver the Dom of your dreams.”

She considers this for a moment, staring cautiously at me while she weighs the decision as though she’s trying to catch me in a double cross.

“This isn’t a trick,” I confess. “I keep my word. If you can keep yours, I’ll help you.”

“Fine,” she says at last. “Find me someone worthy, and you’ll never see or hear from me again.”

Oh, I’ll make sure that.

I reach across the table to shake her hand, then dab my napkin against the corners of my mouth before rising from my seat. Luke follows and for the first time, I glance over and see the way he’s looking at me. The emotion that paints his expression isn’t quite anger, but it’s not far off.

“Order whatever you like,” I tell Alexis as I pick up my bag. “Dessert, drinks… It’s on me.”

“Thank you.” With a curt nod, I move around the table, only stopping to ensure the maître d’ charges everything that’s ordered to my account. Once we’re outside though, Luke grabs me by the arm and drags me down the sidewalk to the car before nearly throwing me inside.

“What the hell was that?” he demands, the moment he’s shut his door behind him.

“What else was I supposed to do? She’s already lost everything, that gives me very little else to work with.”

“So instead you want to play like you’re Elena Lincoln?”

His insinuation hits me like a slap across the face, and if he wasn’t my best friend and closest confidant, I think that’s exactly what he’d have earned in return.

“How dare you!”

“What the fuck else would call what you just promised her?”

“Elena Lincoln was a sexual predator. She pushed girls beyond the boundaries of consent and turned a blind eye to abuse. I’m not forcing Alexis into anything. This is what she wants, Luke.”

He turns away and stares through the front windshield, jaw tight, muscles tense. He’s fuming and if didn’t trust him absolutely, it would be almost terrifying.

“Look, if you’re not comfortable helping me with this anymore, I’m not going to force you to.”

“You already have!” he screams back. “Jesus Christ, Ana, you’ve got me in a box here. We’re in this too deep now for me to go to Taylor and not risk destroying your marriage or your family, so the only option you’ve left me with is to abandon you and  you know that’s the one thing I would never do. You’ve put this all on me. I don’t want to go where this is taking us but you have given me no other choice.” His words ring through the car with an echo almost as loud as his shouts. I feel the harsh sting of his castigation and crumple beneath it.

“I’m sorry.”

His body deflates as he lets out a long breath and reaches over to pull me into a hug. I try as hard as I can to hold back the wave of emotion that threatens to completely overcome me, but the confrontation I’d just been through and its subsequent revelation demand release. So I cry into his shirt until I’ve gotten it out and I’m able to pull myself together again.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him again, and he nods in acceptance.

“This is it, Ana, okay? She told you straight to your face that there’s no one else out there. Once Carrick’s investigation is done, they’ll know who’s left from Lincoln’s circle and he’ll take care of them the right way.”

“If his investigation is ever done…”

“It will be. Soon. And we’ll let them handle whatever they uncover, okay?”

I take a breath, but nod, and he squeezes my arm reassuringly before he starts the car and takes me back to my office.

 

As per the new normal, Christian is still at work by the time I get back home that evening. My brain is full of jumbled passages of text and worries over Alexis, but I do my very best not to let any of that show as I feed and play with Calliope. I keep her up a little later than I normally would, wanting Christian to at least see her before I have to put her down, and thankfully, my patience pays off. He comes through the door just as I’m about to give up and take her to bed.

“Good night, Princess,” he whispers, leaning over the bars of her crib to kiss her forehead. She stares up at him and reaches out to touch his face, so he lingers there awhile. I can feel his torment over the hours missed with our daughter radiating off of him as he tries to force himself to leave her side, and it hits me harder than I’m prepared for.

“You really should try to make it home earlier,” I tell him, once we’ve stepped out of the nursery. “I know you’re busy but I think it hurts you to miss this time with her as much as it hurts her.”

“I know. Between our new slate of acquisitions and the fusion project, there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day anymore.”

“Acquisitions? I thought you passed that off to Ros?”

“I did, but we’re coming up on end of year and we’ve got to get more aggressive if we’re going to…” He pauses, obviously changing direction mid-sentence. “This is my strong suit, not Ros’s.”

“So… these late hours are only going to get worse over the next few weeks?”

“I’m going to try my hardest to make sure the don’t.”

I take a deep breath, wrap my arms around him, and gently press my lips to his. He takes my kiss as eagerly as a man dying of thirst reaches for a drink of water. I can feel him change under my touch, his body relaxes, and he seems to breathe more easy. When I pull away and swipe the few loose hairs on his forehead away, he looks years younger than he did when he’d first returned home.

“Everything for the fusion project has been moved to the facility in Kent, hasn’t it?”

“Yes. Everything.”

“Then maybe… maybe it’s time Calliope went back to daycare.”

The tension in his face relaxes and he stands a little straighter. “Really?”

“Yeah. I know you like having her close and she needs you around more. Besides, she has teachers and opportunities there that she just don’t have at home. I think it’ll be better for everyone.”

“Thank you, Ana.” He leans down and kisses me again, but just as the kiss begins to morph into something more promising, his phone begins vibrating in the pocket of his trousers. He growls in frustration as he pulls away and takes his phone out of his pocket, but when he looks at the screen, the kind of frustration behind his eyes changes. “I’m sorry, I have to take this.”

“That’s fine. I think I’m actually going to go down to my office and do some writing.”

“Writing? You haven’t done any writing for months.”

“Well, maybe being around authors all day has struck my muse.”

“Your Calliope.” He smiles, and I respond with soft laugh that once again draws him to my lips. “I’ll come find you when I’m finished.”

“And I’ll leave a trail of breadcrumbs so you don’t get lost.”

“How about you leave me these?” His fingers toy with the fabric of my shirt, and after giving him a scolding look, I kiss him on the cheek and leave him to his phone call.

On the way to my office, I triple check each room I pass to make sure I’m alone and that no one is left in the house to come looking for me. My paranoia is so peaked that I feel like the eyes of the family photos that litter the back hallway are following me as I close myself inside the one room in the house that is only mine, and yet I remain undeterred. With a steadying breath, I settle down in the padded chair behind my desk, move my mouse to bring my computer out of sleep mode, and pull my keyboard toward me.

In truth, I have no idea what I’m doing, so I start the only way I can fathom. I pull up Google and type, ‘BDSM dating sites’ into the search bar. Unfortunately, the phrase gets millions of hits. I click the first link, type in my city, and begin scrolling through candidates. I’m not wanting for options, the kink is actually more prevalent than I’d anticipated, but pickings are slim in terms of quality. Most of the pictures posted are of balding, middle aged men and mattress with various toys displayed in a sparsely decorated bedroom. Many of the biographies I skim are either vulgar and disgusting, or peppered with romantic idealism. Not what a submissive like Alexis would ever be interested in.

It occurs to me, as I flip to the 17th page on the site I’m browsing, that she’s probably been through these same listings and come up just as I am. I try another site, and another, and once I find that I’m reading the same profiles I’ve seen before, I let out a deep sigh, fold my arms over my desk, and let my head fall down on top of them.

Why did I think I could do this? She was right, I have no ties to this community. I don’t know how a dominant meets a submissive, I lucked into mine. And if it hadn’t been for Elena Lincoln…

I freeze, then sit bolt upright. Elena Lincoln.

With another cautious look at my office door, I exit out of my browser, and click the GEH portal icon that’s only on my desktop because Christian worked out of my office for a few weeks while his office finished undergoing renovation shortly after we moved in. His information is already populated in the sign in box, so I don’t even have to make an attempt at a guess for his password, and after arguing with myself if I really should be doing what I’m about to do, I click the button to sign in.

Instantly, I have access to the entire GEH server. His personal welcome page is littered with neatly organized folders for acquisitions, legal, and each department. My eyes are immediately drawn to the one still highlighted in blue, as if it’s the one that’s been most recently opened, titled Fusion Project, but I ignore my curiosity and instead click through Taylor’s folders.

It takes a while to find what I’m looking for, but eventually I come across the records we’d pulled from Kink, Elena’s club. My mouth goes dry as I open the folder, but my guilt is quickly replaced with victory. Alongside the financial records are client lists and I’m relieved to find that Elena had been very detailed in her record keeping. The data she has on each dominant includes their contact information, hard limits, preferences for submissives, even their net worth. It looks like preferential treatment was given to the clients who came in with the most money in their pockets, so their files are the most detailed. I only only have to find one who Alexis was never paired with but, as I begin weeding through the names with the highest numbers in the income column, my door opens.

“Hey, you almost finished?” Christian asks.

I jump, and my eyes snap to his too quickly. A clear indication of guilt. His brow furrows and he steps inside my office, so I quickly back out of every folder open on my screen and hit the x to kill the program just before he’s able to get a look at what’s on my computer screen. Unfortunately, the window I had open behind the GEH portal, isn’t much better that what I just narrowly avoided him seeing.

Fetish Life,” he reads aloud, clearly taken aback.

“Research,” I say quickly. “I thought I’d dabble a little in Romance.”

“Really?” His tone suggests I’ve piqued his interest, rather than angered him, and he smiles as he saunters back around my desk and casually sits in the chair across from me. “That book your employee told you to read really made an impression, huh?”

I let out an awkward laugh. “Yeah, I guess. I just… I’m having a fundamental problem with some of the more detailed aspects of the lifestyle.”

“Well, I don’t know why you’re trolling the internet when you have fully invested Dom right here, willing and waiting.”

“I’m not looking for Dom,” I say clearly. “I just… I don’t really understand how people in the lifestyle meet each other since everything is so secret. You know, when they don’t have an Elena Lincoln.”

“Well, it’s not always secret. A lot of people live the lifestyle quite openly. They’re a conventions, clubs… all kinds of ways for people to meet each other. It’s only the ones who would have something to lose if people found out that keep it secret.”

“And how do those people meet each other?”

He shrugs. “Networking.”

“Okay, but how do you network if you don’t want people to find out about what you do?”

“I don’t know, it just happens. It’s a fairly common fetish and it’s fairly easy to spot the indicators if you know what you’re looking for. My world is full of people who privately practice BDSM. Powerful people are drawn to power.”

This is I know from Elena. She’d put herself through college and grad school by being submissive to powerful men. It had been her saving grace at the time, only to end up being her downfall once she tried to get out.

“And you know people?”

“A few. There’s a guy I know in New York, Damien Beaufort. He owns a PR/Marketing firm that’s one of the best in the world. That’s where I got Jacqueline. He’s been in the lifestyle for… eleven years.”

“How do you know?”

“I introduced him to Elena.”

“Oh.” I frown, and he gets out of his seat, walks back to me, and places his hands on each of the arm rests of my chair before leaning down and taking my lips in a deep, long, passionate kiss.

“Anything else you need for your… research?” he asks, playfully.

“Couldn’t hurt,” I whisper back. He smiles again and stands up straight, staring down at me with the commanding look in his eye that makes me want to get to my knees.

“Meet me upstairs in five minutes.”

I nod. “Yes, Sir.”

He turns and goes, leaving me breathless and wanting. I shake my head to clear away the desire fueled fog, and pull up an email to send to Luke.

 

From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Found.

Date: May 14th 2012, 10:43 PM

To: Luke Sawyer

Get in contact with Damien Beaufort in New York. He might be our guy.

X

Ana

 

Once the email sends, I power down my computer, sweep my hair back away from my face, and begin to braid it as I make my way up the stairs.

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