I can’t tell what feels heavier, my eyelids or my head in general. It’s been an incredibly long day, accomplished on an incredibly small amount of sleep, and the words of the manuscript I’ve pulled from my submission inbox are starting to blur together. We’ve been back in Seattle for five days, I’ve had four sessions with Flynn, and I’ve spent the past three nights tossing and turning or waking up in a cold sweat with Andrew Lincoln’s whispers still ringing through my head. Now that the flood gates have been opened, I don’t seem to be able to keep him out of my thoughts anymore. Or to stop myself from replaying that night in my head over and over again with such clarity that sometimes I feel like I’m still there. My nightmares are more vivid and terrifying than ever before. Drudging Lincoln up in therapy night after night is exactly as painful as I thought it would be. He seems to linger over me like a specter that I can’t escape. His shadow is everywhere, like the thick cover of clouds that persist over this city through the long, cold months of winter.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Grey?”
I jump slightly at the intrusion, then turn towards the door where Stevens stands with his knuckles still held against the metal door frame. His eyes aren’t focused on me, though. They’re pointed in the direction of the low groan and squeak from the newly placed chair in the corner of my office. Taylor turns away from the monitors on the desk in front of him and gives Stevens a once over.
Despite a very long discussion that lasted nearly the entire flight home, Christian fired Woods right after our return from New York. I tried to argue that it wasn’t his fault he lost me at the hotel since I’d purposely sent him away so that I could get out undetected, but Christian can’t look past the fact that Woods didn’t even know I was missing until he got into my room, found it empty, and tracked Evan down to ask where I was.
You could have been kidnapped, he’d argued.
What if you’d been mugged or attacked in some back alley and left for dead? We wouldn’t even know you were missing until it was too late.
It’s a hard sentiment to argue when part of the reason I can’t sleep at night is the because of the time that very thing happened to me, but none of this was Evan’s fault and I made sure that even though he wasn’t with me, I planned everything that night exactly as Taylor would have. I wasn’t reckless or rash, I chose a public place where people knew I would be, and Luke was with me the whole time. But Christian was firm that he didn’t pay for security that could be thrown off with something as simple as, I’ll be fine, take the night off. So, while Taylor screen applicants for a replacement, he’s stuck with me.
“Come on in, Stevens,” I say, closing the open document on my computer and replying to the email it was attached to with a request for more pages. Taylor watches intently while he takes a few tentative steps into my office, but once he starts to settle down in the chair across from me, he turns back to the surveillance footage switching between Christian’s facility in Kent, GEH, my house, and the door to the street downstairs. I smile at Stevens to get him to relax. “I want to talk about your newest title.”
“I did everything you told me to do,” he says, immediately defensive. “You said follow the passion and my daughter loved Coburn’s first book. She was self published, she didn’t have representation for her next book, and I made her an offer. If that hasn’t panned out, then maybe what we really need to talk about is how your methods aren’t as great as you think they are…”
I take a deep breath, reach into the bin on the corner of my desk, and take out the report I pulled this afternoon. “I wanted to talk to you because it’s been twenty four hours since Coburn announced her book release on her website, and I have your pre-order numbers. I thought you should see them.”
His brow furrows as he reaches out for the paper in my outstretched hand, but as he starts to scan the data, the lines in his forehead smooth away and his mouth drops open.
“5,500?” he gasps.
“That’s right. Turn’s out your author had quite the following. You’re daughter’s not the only one who can’t wait for his next release.”
“But… but that’s more than The Black Rose.”
“Yeah, don’t rub it in.” He looks up at me again and, when I roll my eyes, his face breaks into a smile.
“You were right.”
“I’ll try not to let it go to my head.” He laughs and shakes his head with incredulity, but whatever he’d planned to say next is cut off when Taylor’s phone starts to ring and we both turn to look as he answers it.
“Taylor. Yes, sir.” Without a goodbye, he slips his phone back into his pocket, locks his system, and slowly rises from his chair. “Mrs. Grey, Mr. Grey is downstairs.”
An acrid taste creeps up into my mouth. Not because Christian’s here, but because of where he intends to take me. As difficult as my four solo sessions with Flynn have been this week, I know our joint session is going to be even more brutal. It’s one thing to have to relive your own trauma. It’s another thing entirely to have the person you love there to witness it too.
“Alright,” I breathe, thankful I manage to maintain my smile for Stevens’ sake. He hands the report back as he gets out of his chair and once I’ve filed it away again, I too lock down my computer and we all make our way out of my office.
“Thank you, Mrs. Grey,” Steven says, holding his hand out to shake mine. I glance down at it, then place my hand on the shoulder of his jacket instead.
“Call me Ana.” With a wink, I walk away and Taylor falls in line half a step behind me. He holds open the door to the GSP office, calls the elevator, and pushes the button for the ground floor while I send a quick text to Grace to ask how her afternoon with Calliope and Kennedy at the zoo went.
The air is cool and the shadows are long once we make it out of the building and I spot Christian’s car idling on the curb. Taylor keeps two fingers pressed against the inside of my elbow as he guides me across the bustling sidewalk and opens the passenger side door of the Maybach for me. It’ll be just Christian and I for the rest of the night, so I make sure to smile and thank him for today as I tell him goodnight and step inside.
“I don’t know, Grey…” a disembodied voice says through the speaker phone of the car. Christian silently reaches over to take my hand and kiss my fingertips, then signals his way back into traffic all without interrupting whoever it is he’s talking to. “This is my entire life’s work. I started building this company when I was twenty four years old. I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into it.”
“I know, believe me. A business isn’t just products and profits, it’s years of sacrifices. It’s failures and it’s successes. It’s time away from your family and the things that you love. It’s your vision, and it’s not lost on me that your vision is what’s gotten you to where you’re at. I don’t want to take that from you, I want to partner with you. You and your team are just as valuable to me and my company as your technology.”
“So you’re telling me my people aren’t going to lose their jobs?”
“Sam, I’ve known you since I was sixteen. Your son went through YEC with me and you wrote the recommendation letter that got me into Harvard. You know me, and you know that I do not undervalue what your people do for this company.”
“Yeah… you’re right.” He sighs. “Alright, Grey. You’ve got a deal. I’ll sign the contracts and get them to your office before I get out of here tonight.”
“Great, I’ll make sure my assistant is there to receive them. We’ll talk soon, Sam.”
“Looking forward to it. Have a good night.” The phone clicks off, but Christian immediately pushes his finger back into the voice control button and instructs the system to call Ros.
“What can I do for you, mein Führer?” she answers.
“Did you get the deal done with Eikhoff?”
“Yes, he should be sending the signed contracts over within the hour. Tell Barney he has thirty days to strip whatever we can use and integrate it into the system before we shuck the LLC.”
“Should I give HR a heads up for any transplants?”
“No, there won’t be any employee retention after 30 days.” My brows knit together and I blink over at him in confusion, but Christian’s eyes stay focused on the road ahead of us. “I’ll be unreachable for the next few hours. Andrea is waiting at the office for Eikhoff’s contracts to come in, so forward anything urgent to her and I’ll deal with it once I get home.”
“Alright. Enjoy the rest of your evening. Let me know if you happen to find $80 million dollars lying around anywhere.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good bye.” The call drops again, but this time, Christian’s hand doesn’t move to the button on his steering wheel. He reaches over to me and takes my hand.
“I’m sorry, I really tried to finish up before I left the office but it’s been a brutal day.”
“Yeah, I got your Google Alert.”
I pull out my phone, and swipe down on the screen so I can review all the notifications I’ve ignored throughout the day. “Emergency Crews Dispatched to Grey Testing Site.”
He frowns. “Great. As if I didn’t have enough on my hands with public opinion.”
His hand untangles from mine and he moves as though he’s going to make another phone call, but before he can press his finger into the Bluetooth button, I quickly reach out and cover it with my own fingers.
“It was nothing really. Just a… malfunction.”
“No, nothing that serious. The safety features programmed in after the last malfunction all worked fine. We just need to fine tune a little before we start testing again.”
I take a deep breath and gnaw on the inside of my cheek. Christian’s poker face is perfect, so I can’t tell whether or not he’s downplaying whatever it was that happened. But he pulls into the parking garage near Flynn’s office before I get the chance to question him further and my mounting apprehension over what we’re about to go through pushes everything else out of my mind. When he finds a spot and shifts the car into park, it feels like a giant rock drops into my stomach.
I pull in a deep breath of air, and slowly let it out through my lips.
“Hey,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt and turning to face me. His hand moves across my cheek and into my hair. “How was your day?”
“Fine. Taylor got me the big pickle from the deli on Union St. this afternoon.”
“He’s a good man.”
“He is. But he scares the shit out of half the people who work for me.”
“Good.” I roll my eyes, and Christian uses the hand on the back of my head to pull me towards him. At first, I think it’s just going to be a quick, passing kiss because we’re in a parking garage and running late. But as I start to kiss him back, his hands move so that his thumbs rest across my jaw and he can coax my mouth open. Once my lips part, his tongue slides across mine in a slow, but sensual rhythm. The soft caress melts away some of my misgivings. It pulls me into him, clouds the parts of my mind that worry over the imminent breakdown I’m about to have in therapy, and gives me one last moment to just bask in the feel of him. There’s comfort in his kiss, from which I can draw courage.
“You ready?” he asks once we’ve finally pulled away from one another.
I nod, but the gesture is only marginally stronger than the whisper I’m able to conjure. “Yeah.”
“Then let’s go.” We climb out of the car, and immediately reach for each other as we make our way towards the elevator. His hand is warm in mine and imbued with a strength that is obvious even when he’s gentle. There are few things in the world that bring me solace the way that Christian’s hands do, and I remind myself of that fact as that very same hand moves to my lower back and he uses it to guide me through the door of Flynn’s office.
“Good evening, Mr. Grey,” Flynn’s receptionist greets us. Her purse is on her desk, and her keys are in her hand, so I guess that she was waiting for our arrival before she left for the night. With sure fingers, she picks up her phone, dials a four digit extension, and lets Dr. Flynn know we’re here. Once she’s set the phone back down on the receiver, she smiles and slings her bag over her shoulder. “He’s ready whenever you are. Go on in.”
“Thank you, Clara,” Christian says. He turns to me and leans down to kiss me on the forehead, then takes my hands and walks with me through the double doors.
Flynn is already in the padded armchair he usually occupies during our sessions, though he’s too distracted flipping through a bound stack of papers in his hand to do more than offer us more than a half-smile as a hello. I realize only after I’ve sat on the couch across from him and cuddled up against Christian’s side that the stack of papers he’s perusing is my manuscript.
“Oh good, you got past the first hundred pages,” I begin, though my attempt at a joke comes out weak and shaky. “That’s a good sign that it’s not unreadable.”
“On the contrary,” he replies. “I think the story is lovely. It’s well written, romantic, smart…”
“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
He takes a breath, uncrosses his legs, and places the manuscript on the arm of his chair. When he leans towards me, his eyes glimmer with a kind of understanding pride that reminds me of my father. “It was shallow. And that’s fine, if that’s the story you wanted to tell. I really do think it’s well written. But I think you and I both know that this is not Escape. You poured your soul into that story. You took your pain, you laid it out, and you found a way to come out the other side through your characters. I felt that. This… I can’t feel you at all in these pages.”
“Focusing on the pain wasn’t what I needed when I wrote that. I thought it would be better to ruminate over love and… uh…” Words fail me, because they’re a lie, and I feel a rush of guilt. The truth is, he’s right. That book wasn’t the tool I used to work through what had happened me the way that I told everyone it was. It was an reprieve from it. An excuse not to think or feel. To lose myself in fantasy. The actual plot is so hastily thrown together and mechanical that I can’t even remember writing most of it. It isn’t filled with trauma, it’s a thing that exists entirely outside of it. Like a shield or dream.
“I couldn’t…” I whisper.
“Couldn’t what?” Flynn asks. My hand clenches Christian’s and I look over at him, holding my jaw painfully tight to keep my lips from trembling. He leans in close to me and rests his forehead against mine. The tips of our noses barely touch. I can feel his breath and the gentle, encouraging stroke of his thumb across the back of my hand.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, and after clearing my throat, I nod and turn back to Flynn.
“I couldn’t go through it again. I tried, but I couldn’t. Escape was incredibly painful to write, but I soldiered through because I wanted to. I wanted to think about Christian. I wanted to remember every second we had together and writing about him made me feel close to him when I was missing him more than I could ever admit to anyone. Writing about him gave me an excuse to love him from afar. It was worth it to have to relive the pain of what happened with Elena every single day to have that. But this is different. I don’t want to think about Lincoln. I don’t want to remember him and I certainly don’t want to feel close to him. He terrifies me and the only way I’ve been able to stop him from completely destroying me is to just take everything I feel about him and what happened, put it in a box, and pretend it didn’t happen. As long as I can do that, the box stays closed and he stays locked away.”
“That’s interesting,” Flynn says. “The box. Is that a visual technique for you? Putting your feelings away and pushing them aside?”
I shake my head. “It’s a metaphor.”
“A metaphor for what?”
“I think of it like Pandora’s Box, the thing that holds all of the terrible things we’ve been through. Keeping them inside keeps them from overwhelming me. As long as the lid stays closed, I can keep myself stitched together so that I could be mother to my daughter. I can forget about the feel of him on top of me and his hands on my body long enough to be intimate with my husband…”
“Ana,” Christian says, shifting towards me and encasing me in his arms. It’s not a reaction I can control, but my body tenses and cringes away from his touch, and he releases me in an instant. I offer him an apologetic look, pleading for understanding with my eyes, then I look down at my hands and finish without facing either of them.
“Every time I talk about him, or even think about him, it’s gets harder to keep him inside.”
“And what happens if he gets out?” Flynn asks.
There’s a rattle inside of me, like a caged animal pitching and fighting against the metal bars of his prison. It makes my heart skip a beat. My chest gets tight. I have to concentrate to breathe normally. And a potent sense of dread moves over me like a total solar eclipse.
“Ana?” Christian encourages me.
“Then he’ll get what he wanted,” I reply, whispering through my constricted throat. “I can’t even tell you all the dark thoughts that went through my head right after it happened. I’m scared that if I let him out, he’ll overwhelm me and he’ll drag me down into the darkness with him until he destroys me.”
Christian shakes his head, then shifts and reaches over to rest his fingers against my jaw so he can turn my face to his. “No, he won’t. Baby, he can’t touch you. He can’t do anything to you. He is gone. You are safe. Calliope is safe. I’ve made sure of that.”
“You can’t hire security to protect me from him, Christian. The damage is done. The scars are already there.” My voice breaks, and I have to look up at the ceiling to stop the tears pooling in my waterline. “Sometimes it feels like everything that’s happened since that night is just borrowed time until the inevitable happens.”
“Don’t talk like that. Don’t let him do this to you. You are fine. You are here, with me, and life goes on every single day. You are an amazing mother, and you are absolutely everything to me. That is what is inevitable. Me and you. Lincoln is the past and we have so much to look forward to in the future.”
I nod, but return my gaze to my fingertips so he can’t see the hopelessness that still lingers in my eyes. It’s hard to hear the way he practically pleads with me to believe him, to see the desperate way he wants to make all of this better, and yet, to feel the same terror in my heart in spite of all of it. I want to be reassured by his words. I want to accept the safety he’s promised and return to the life I had before all of this happened. But I can’t. I don’t know how. And the longer Christian stares at me, trying to assure me that none of what happened matters anymore, the more the dangerous beast inside of me thrashes against his cage to prove him wrong.
I glance up at Flynn and find his eyes moving between the two of us with an interest that is more curious than diagnostic. He gives no sign that he has his own insights or sage words of wisdom to navigate us around this impasse.
“Aren’t you going to tell me that he’s gone and I can move on?” I ask.
“Will that help you?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m here. You’re the expert, remember?”
He uncrosses his legs, making the leather on his chair groan. “I think you’re giving Lincoln a lot of power, Anastasia.”
“Giving him power?” I repeat, almost in a gasp as I struggle to restrain my incredulity. “You weren’t there. You didn’t watch him walk over two bodies to take my daughter into his arms and have to sit there, helpless, and let it happen. You didn’t smell the smoke from the gunshots, or see Christian fall to the floor, or feel his blood pour out of his body with your hands. You didn’t have to hear him beg you to run, to leave him to die so that you could escape. You didn’t have to accept that you were about to be taken from your family and have unspeakable things done to you and that no one would be able to stop it. You didn’t have to be glad for it because you knew that the faster he got away with you, the faster he got away from Calliope and the faster someone would find Christian so they could save his life. That’s what I saw, and still see every time I close my eyes. In my nightmares, it’s still happening. All of that is inside of me and I can’t live with it. You can tell me I’m wrong for how I’ve handled everything since then, but I did what I did because I was drowning and locking down my feelings and going after the people I thought were a threat to my family was the only thing that made me feel like I could stop it.”
My voice breaks on the last word and I devolve into tears. Christian reaches forward to pick up the box of Kleenex from the table in front of us and as I yank two of the tissues free, Flynn picks up a notepad on his side table and jots down a few notes.
“I’m sorry,” I say, once I’ve regained control over myself again. He smiles and sets his pen down.
“Don’t apologize for your pain, Ana. It’s valid. I don’t mean to discredit what you’ve been through. You’re a survivor and whether it’s the violence or the sexual assault, you’ve experienced trauma that is clearly overwhelming for you. That’s normal. But I think your coping mechanism serves Lincoln more than it serves you.”
“I needed to feel in control of something. Finding the people who were involved with the conspiracy against Christian and making sure they couldn’t pick up where Lincoln failed made me feel like something real was being done. That it didn’t matter how long Carrick’s investigation was held up in city budgetary meetings, or that we had to fight to prove my father innocent when I watched Lincoln slaughter his own people right in front of us. I was protecting us, and as long as I could do that, I wasn’t unleashing Pandora’s Box.”
“But that’s exactly my point. I think you’re missing the key lesson the legend of Pandora’s Box is trying to teach, Anastasia.”
“And what’s that?”
“When Pandora opened her box, she released evil into the world, but do you know what she kept?”
“She didn’t keep it. She closed the box before it could escape…”
“But what was it?”
My lips mash together defiantly, but eventually I answer. “Hope.”
“Exactly. And it is hope that is all man has left to hold onto as we face the wickedness that she released. Hope is what stayed in the box, and so it is only hope that we have left. Putting Lincoln in a box isn’t locking him away, it’s holding onto him.” He reaches back to pick up my manuscript, then sets it on the coffee table between us. His eyes glow with warm encouragement. “I think you need to open the box.”
I leave the session in tears. Shaking. Needing Christian to hold me as he guides me past wondering eyes to the parking garage. It’s devastating, and not because Flynn has spent the last better part of our hour pushing me further past the walls I built around this than I’ve ever dared to let myself go before. It’s because I failed. I went as far as I could but just as we started to finally get somewhere real, I shut down. Something inside of me snapped close like a mouse trap and I wasn’t strong enough to pry it open again. I broke down into near hysterics and started hyperventilating. Even now, as Christian helps lower me into the front seat of the car, I can’t stop sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” I say, hiding my face in my hands in humiliation while tears continue to stream in hot, red streaks down my cheeks. He closes the driver’s side door behind him, then reaches across the center console and lays a flat palm over my back, dragging it slowly up and down the knotted line of my spine.
“Let’s get you home.”
I shake my head. “No. Can we wait a minute, please? I don’t want Calliope to see me like this.”
He nods and continues to rub my back in patient silence. His fingers trace soft lines up my neck and into the roots of my hair. He drags his hands through my long locks over and over again, each time letting the strands escape his gentle hold in a cascade of feather light touches over my back. With every pass, his touch soothes away the fear and the dread, until I regain enough control to choke back my tears.
“It gets easier,” he says. “After awhile, you say it so many times that it starts to lose meaning. It starts to feel like a recitation and you get further and further until eventually, you can say the whole thing aloud without wanting to run away from it.”
“Maybe I made it worse,” I choke out in defeat. “Maybe Flynn is right. Maybe putting him in a box really is holding on to him, and I’ve put so much into keeping him locked away that I can’t wrench him out anymore.”
His mouth opens, but words fail him. I can see an unnamed emotion shift uncertainly behind his eyes, and just before he answers, he lets out a long, burdened breath and nods as though he’s reassuring himself as much as he plans to reassure me. “Then maybe we can force him out.”
“What do you mean?”
His hand skims up to the side of my face, and his thumb brushes away the moisture from my cheeks. “Do you trust me?”
My answer is immediate and free of doubt. “Yes.”
“Then tell me your safe word.”
My brows knit together. We’re in a parking garage that’s still full and there isn’t much room for either of us to maneuver in the Maybach. He couldn’t possibly want to… not here…
“Is that a question?”
“Red,” I say more firmly. The hard knot in his throat moves as he swallows with determination and leans over to kiss my forehead.
“Remember that,” he tells me. Then he starts the car.
Pulling out of the parking garage, I assume that he’s taking me home to play out a scene similar to the one that got me out of bed all those months ago. But that proves to be wrong when he misses the turn for the street that would take us to the freeway. I stare through the window and examine the landmarks around us, trying to guess where he’s taking me. Once I figure it out, I wish I hadn’t.
The low click of the turn signal doesn’t waver under my outburst and he navigates smoothly around the corner of Virginia Ave and into the parking garage under Escala. I grab onto the leather upholstery so hard my knuckles turn white. I’m beyond the point of shaking, I’m paralyzed. When the car stops, not a single part of me responds to the desperate cries of my brain to flee. Apparently fight or flight isn’t the only kind of natural panic response. My body chooses playing dead.
“We’re going to go upstairs,” Christian says gently, moving with the utmost care as he pulls the keys from the ignition and turns to face me again. I shake my head, though I’m not sure the movement is perceptible. “Your safeword is in play. If it becomes too much, you can leave at any time.”
“No, I can’t go up there.”
“This is the box, Anastasia. This is where you put him. You want to draw him out? Let him go? Come with me, and let me open the lid.”
I blink at him through wet eyelashes. “I can’t, Christian. Not here…”
“Yes you can. And I’m going to be with you the whole time.”
My fingers stay curled around the seat, and my limbs remain frozen. I feel completely inept. I can see his hope reflected in the smoky curls of his eyes and in the flushed part in his lips. But it changes nothing. I’m weak. Lost in grief. Afraid of a shadow that has a hold on me more real than I’d let myself realize.
And I hate it.
I hate that this is where I’ve ended up. I hate that this is what I’ve become. I hate every tear and every tremble of fear. I hate that it’s all because of him. That I’ve let him terrorize me to this point. That I’ve lost the girl who could face anything, who believed that good will always overcome evil in the end. I hate that I’ve let him take her from me.
Christian’s right. This is how I take that back. I could go upstairs to where it happened and prove to him and myself that I’m not going to be weak anymore. That I am stronger than this. That I won’t let him have this power over me. That he can’t drag me down because I choose the light. I choose my family. I choose my life.
Except, I can’t move.
“Help me,” I whisper.
Christian tilts his forehead until it’s pressed against mine. “Always.”
My heart thunders in my ears as he makes his way around to my side of the car and opens my door for me. His warm hand engulfs mine and pulls me up out of the car, into his side. I cling to him, breathing in his familiar masculine scent and letting it wash away my doubt and trepidation. In his arms, I can walk easily down the ramp to the lower level of the garage, but the second the elevator comes into view, my knees buckle underneath me.
“It’s okay,” Christian says. His hands tighten their hold on me, and my weight shifts onto him. He half carries me into the elevator, and when the doors close, I’m convinced I’d be on the floor if it weren’t for his support.
The voice that asks for the passcode sounds sharper than I remember. More sinister. The last time I’d heard it, I’d barely paid attention to it at all. I was too consumed with Christian’s wanton lips and touch to register something I’d reduced to background noise months and months before. But now that voice seems to echo through the small, enclosed space as though she were shouting. Christian enters a six digit code that I don’t even know anymore, and once I feel the shift of the clamps releasing and jolt of the car as it moves up the cable, I whimper and bury my face into his chest.
His arms twist around me like a protective barrier. I force myself to focus only on the feel of his lips on my hair, as though they have the power to erase everything around me. And maybe they do. It’s easier to silence the voice in my head screaming for me to turn around and to push down the rising panic from the depths of my stomach as long as I concentrate only on the gentle pressure of his kiss and the soothing words he whispers to me. I can even watch as the number over the door roll past until finally, they read 31 and a high ping sounds as the car starts to slow.
The doors roll back and Christian nudges me forward.
It’s cold in the foyer, which is different than I remember. This place had always been filled with the warmth of Christian that made it feel like home. But that’s gone now. There are no bright, welcoming flowers on the table in front of the elevator or inviting smells wafting in from the kitchen. There’s no golden glow from the chandelier or wink of flames in the fireplace just visible in the great room to coax me forward. Everything feels hollow, like an empty shell, and the echo of my heels over the marble as Christian pulls me further inside are punctuated by flashes of my memories of Andrew Lincoln’s footsteps ringing through my head so clearly I actually jump and look over my shoulder to make sure he’s not behind me. Once we get to the place under the arch between the foyer and the living room, my muscles seize and I can’t force myself forward any more.
“Almost, baby,” Christian encourages me. “Just a few more steps.”
“This is where she died,” I reply, my voice as empty as the room. I look down at the floor below my feet and recall the blood that pooled around our nanny as clearly as if it were still staining the immaculate marble. “This is where it started…”
I start to shake and the cold air of the room pricks at my lungs as though it’s full of needles. It’s dark, just like it was that night. But now that darkness feels ominous. Heavy, even. The apartment is filled with a tangible threat that makes the hair on the back of my arms stand up and has my heart thundering in my chest.
“That’s where Luke got shot,” I say, nodding towards a spot only a few feet away. My eyes move into the living room, which is illuminated only by the moon and the lights of the buildings around us. It casts the sparse furniture in silver light that creates long, menacing shadows across the empty floor. The chair Gia had sat in that night is gone, but the couch she’d segregated Christian and I to while she cradled Calliope in her arms still stands in exactly the same place. “That’s where we were.”
I look to the window, which has been replaced since that night as it had been shattered by a stray bullet. “That’s where Gia died, and Kommer. That’s where he grabbed me, and where you… where you…”
The words cut off as my throat gets tight and my lungs fail under the pressure. I pant and tighten my hold on Christian, worried my legs will give out. The room around me starts to spin, the corners of my vision darken, and a high pitched sound rings through my ears. But just before I devolve into a full blown panic attack, Christian turns me towards him and looks deep into my eyes.
“That’s what you see. Do you know what I see?”
My lips tremble around my response. “What?”
He moves me back a few paces, until I’m standing right over the place I’d fallen over Ava’s body.
“This,” he begins, “is the place I stood the first night you came here. After your very first session with Flynn when you wouldn’t let me touch you and you left without kissing me goodbye. I stood right here for a long time after I watched you leave. It was the first time in two years I let myself hope.”
“Yeah.” He tugs me forward a few paces, to where Luke had fallen. “This is where you were standing the night you came up here to get the key for your apartment downstairs. I was there, at the piano, and you stood right here in a black dress that hugged every curve of you in a way that made me want you so much it hurt. That was the night we made love for the first since you left me.”
I can picture the scene he describes perfectly. The way the moonlight highlighted the contours of his arms while his fingers moved with a skill I remembered oh so well over the keys of his piano. The way my tongue went dry at the sight of his bare chest and yearned to taste his skin. I can still hear the soft melody of the song he played.
I take a deep breath and, as I let the memory swirl through my mind, I find that it isn’t met with resistance.
Christian’s fingers lace tightly with mine, and when he walks forward into the living room, I’m surprised that my body doesn’t fight against him. My legs have regained their strength. My knees have stopped shaking. I move willingly and a small, but noticeable amount of the burden I’ve been carrying with me all this time falls to the floor and dissipates into the air like smoke.
“This is the couch I bought after you told me my empty apartment freaked you out,” he says, smiling now as he looks down on the white fabric with an almost longing kind of nostalgia. “And it’s the place I spent my first sleepless night up with Calliope. I sat there with her swaddled in my arms, praying she wouldn’t start crying again and wake you up.”
He moves again, to a few paces shy of the window.
“This is where we danced on my birthday the first summer after I got you back. Over there is where Kate sat when I showed her your engagement ring for the first time. We spent our wedding night right there in front of the fireplace. Up those stairs is where Calliope’s first bedroom was. That hallway leads to my office where I used to sit at my desk and dial your number every morning, praying you’d answer and give me the chance to fight for you. And down that way is first bedroom that was ever ours.” He stops and faces me again. His hands hold me with a tenderness that washes away the cold and once again lets me bask in the sunny heat of his love. Like that beach in the Maldives or the fireplace in the cabin in Vermont. Like the soft sheets and down comforter on the bed in the other room where I told him I wanted to be his forever. Where we committed ourselves to each other and let go of all of our hurt. He steps closer to me, his face hovering over mine so that his lips are a mere breath away. “This is the place we built our life together, Anastasia. That and the hundreds of other single, perfect memories we made here is what I see. He can’t touch that. And he’ll never be able to take that away from us.”
I take a deep breath and turn so that my back is pressed into his chest and my eyes can scan the room without caution. The memories we’ve made here together come back to me, slowly, like half forgotten dreams. I sat there, covered in blood, while Lincoln’s eyes hungrily devoured me from across the room. But I also sat there with Luke through countless movie marathons. With Kate and a glass of Chardonnay every time Christian went out of town. That’s where Christian made love to me before I left for my final year at Harvard.
I step out of his embrace and start to pace, focusing on each and every place in this apartment tainted by Lincoln’s memory and willing the happier times to overcome him. To drive him out. To make him disappear. And to my surprise, it works. I feel the burden of him lift away more and more with each happy memory that transcends him. But halfway between the wall of glass and the kitchen, I stop and my eyes find a crack in the marble floor. There’s a divot in the stone that’s been ground out and re-polished, probably by Elliot from when he and Kate lived here. I doubt anyone else would even notice it now. But I do. And I remember exactly how it got here. It’s what remains from the bullet that moved through my husband’s body and nearly took everything from me.
“What about here?” I ask, eyes fixated on the imperfection in the marble. “What happened right here?”
Christian slowly moves up behind me and places each of his hands on my exposed arms. I turn to look at him, waiting for his answer, but when it comes, it’s not what I expect.
“This,” he says, and he leans down to kiss me. His lips are gentle, as soft and inviting as they’ve ever been. His hands cradle my face and his body pushes into mine. I can lose myself in the silky brush of his tongue over my lip and the way it moves against my own once he’s granted access to my mouth. Then his hands move down and his nimble fingers work to undo the buttons at the front of my blouse. With three buttons left, impatience wins out and he yanks the remaining fabric apart, sending the last plastic rounds tinkling down across the floor.
I press my mostly exposed chest against his and kiss him harder. He reaches back to unhook my bra while my hands pull at the knot in his tie, loosening it just enough to pull out of his collar and over his head. It means our lips are forced to part, but the moment they do, he bends down for my breast. I groan and let my head fall back, pushing my nipple into his eager mouth while the tips of my hair dance languidly against the naked skin at the base of my spine. A ripple of pleasure moves over my entire body, leaving trails of goosebumps over my arms and the tops of my thighs.
“Christian,” I gasp when his teeth sink down into my over sensitive nipple. He eases the sting with the massaging suckle of his lips and a long lick of his tongue. Then he swivels his face back and forth across my breasts, into my cleavage, and begins to leave a wet trail of kisses down the shallow, defined line along the center of my stomach. Both hands move up to cup and knead my breasts, so once he gets to the waistline of my slacks, I quickly reach down to undo the fastening myself and shimmy them down my legs. When I begin to roll my panties over my hips, he looks up at me and his satisfaction over my eagerness is clear in his eyes.
It’s quite the scene. Me standing in the middle of the living room, drenched in moonlight. Exposed before the city. My panties stretched tight between my legs and Christian on his knees with his face between my thighs. But the most amazing part of it all is that that is all I think about. We’re standing in the middle of where it all happened, and as I look down into my husband’s eyes, I’m no longer standing over the place I almost lost him. I’m standing in the middle of our first home, indulging in the happiness that we’ve experienced here. Together.
I grab onto his hair while I writhe over his tongue, and let the heat he draws out of me melt away the last of the anxiety still pulsating through me. I’m quickly and entirely absorbed in the feeling of his mouth pulling and sucking and massaging the most sensitive parts of me, and yet… there’s clarity too. Perhaps it’s levity. Perhaps it’s just distraction. But as the tides of a powerful orgasm begin to rise within me, I no longer feel the shadows of the apartment like living and menacing things. I find familiarity in the quiet, fortitude in the memories of the life we lived here, and solace in the pleasure of my husband’s mouth.
When my orgasm begins to fade and I come crashing back into reality, panting and shaking at the knees, Christian pulls me down to the floor with him and covers my body with his. His knees rest at my sides while he sits up to pull the half unbuttoned shirt over his head and fishes through the opening in his trousers to pull out his erection. I reach up and wrap my arms around his neck so I can draw him back down to me. Our lips meet. Our tongues entwine with each other. And then he slides home. All the way. Every single inch of him, in one slick motion.
“Oh god!” I moan, arching my back up off the cool, stone floor and into his naked chest. He takes hold of me, his strong hands pulling me tightly against him while he kisses me and nudges my legs further apart with his.
His eyes never leave mine. My body grips him with hot, wet friction that’s heaven and home all at once. My breathing comes harsher and harsher with each thrust, interweaving with the small cries and moans of pleasure that roll out of the deep parts of me that only he could ever reach.
There’s nothing left but him. The sound of his grunts and moans. The taste of his mouth and sweat beading over his skin. The smell of sex. The apartment, Lincoln, dark and terrifying memories… none of it matters. Not while I have him in my arms. Not while we still have this.
And in that moment, as welcome heat and pleasure starts to swell inside of me, I have an epiphany. All this time I’ve been afraid that, despite his death, Lincoln had still won. That he’d done enough damage to leave me mortally wounded and I would never recover. But this is what he wanted to destroy. The bond between Christian and I. And even after the deceit, the secrets, the fear, and the hurt… that’s the one the thing that came out of this undamaged. Because I love him as much today as I did before. More even. And as we lie over the place where the very worst had happened, making love with one another, he proves to me that he feels the same. That nothing has changed for him. That the shadows that feel so threatening inside these walls can’t touch what exists between him and I. And that is what protects me. Not Taylor. Not Woods. Not Luke. That is how Christian keeps me safe when no one else can.
He’s the keeper of my soul.
I cry out as I’m overwhelmed by a second orgasm and Christian tumbles right down after me, pushing as deep as he can while he pours his release inside of me. The release is cathartic. It takes with it all that’s left of my pain and leaves only my new found sense of peace.
When we eventually leave the apartment and make our way back home, the box is open.
Lincoln is gone.
And I am free.