Chapter 29

“Maybe she…” 

“She isn’t.” 

“Well, what if she…?”

“She doesn’t.”

“But she could…” 

“She won’t.” 

I frown at Luke from the passenger’s seat. The traffic is heavier than normal because of an accident on 2nd Ave, so we’re stuck behind a long line of bright red taillights and angry horns. Luke stares through the windshield, irritated, cursing under his breath about the idiot in front of us. I know it’s not the traffic that’s bothering him.

“I’m just saying that when Christian and I broke up, I thought I’d never want to be with him again, and we’re celebrating our one year wedding anniversary next week. Look at Kate and Elliot!” 

“Yeah, the problem is that you and Kate never actually changed your minds. You never fell out of love with Grey.” 

“She fell out of love with you? She said that?”

He lets out a long breath. “It doesn’t matter what she said, it’s over. I don’t even care.” 

“Luke…” 

“You should be happy.” He turns to me, a wide grin masking the emptiness in his eyes. “The gang’s back together again.” 

“Well, of course I’m glad you’re back, but I don’t need you to put on a brave face for me. You said you loved her. Don’t you want me to like… I don’t know, cuddle with you all night and tell you how pretty you are while you cry all over me? I could bring chocolate ice cream and cookie dough.”

He laughs. “Could you imagine telling your husband that you weren’t coming to bed with him because you needed to come cuddle with me?” 

“He didn’t mind when I did it with Kate.” 

“You were already in Cambridge when Kate and Elliot broke up. And Kate and I are not equal best friends in the eyes of the law.” 

“I know, I know… you’re my actual best friend.” 

“Damn right.” He gives me a side smile, but as he turns his attention back to the traffic, his good mood fades again and I watch his blue eyes suddenly go hollow. 

“Luke, what can I do?” 

“Drop it.” 

I slump back into my seat, feeling guilt seep into every one of my pores. Luke only lost Jade because he was forced into a choice between me or her, and I wasn’t even the one he wanted to choose.

“It’s not your fault, Ana,” he tells me, as if he can read my mind.

“I don’t know if that’s true.” 

“Then fine, it’s your fault.” I turn a pained look on him. He grins back. “Nope, you’ve ruined any shot I have at future happiness. I guess you really owe me one, Steele.” 

“Yeah.” I turn back and stare solemnly out my window as we finally start to move again. “Tell me something I don’t already know.” 

He flips the turn signal to merge over to the parking garage next to my building. “Can I tell you something, though? For real?” 

“What?” 

“It’s killing me. But having something to move on to is a lot. You’re not just my job, you’re not just my best friend. You’re the home I can always go back to when I feel like I have nothing left. So, thank you.” 

I reach across the space between us, and squeeze his arm. “You don’t have to thank me. We’re family, Luke. Family is forever.” 

He smiles, then starts to shake his head. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love you, you love me. Let’s talk about sports or something.” 

I laugh. He pulls into a parking place, then takes my bags before we head to the elevators. 

I’m in a great mood getting into the office. Not just because Luke is back, but because, for the first time in a long time, I have good news to share at our weekly staff meeting. I’m actually a little giddy as I collect everything I need to get started. Just one last look at my email before I head out…


From: Chrisitan Grey

Subject: Problematic Distractions

Date: July 16th 2012  08:49 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

I’ve been trying to read this proposal in front of me for almost twenty minutes, but I can’t absorb any of it because I can’t stop thinking about how beautiful you looked this morning. I should have dragged you from Calliope’s daycare to my office. 

What a shame.

Christian Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings


I type a hurried response. 


From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Loose Jargon

Date: July 16th 2012  09:10 AM

To: Christian Grey

So I’m ‘problematic,’ huh?

Anastasia Grey

Editor-in-Chief, Greenwich Small Press


With a smirk, I hit send and reach over to pull my freshly printed agendas out of the printer cartridge. Christian’s response comes just as I’m closing down my computer. 


From: Christian Grey

Subject: Problems

Date: July 16th 2012   09:11 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Only if I’m going to save my company. 

Have lunch with me this afternoon. 

Chrisitan Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings


From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Hot Commodity

Date: July 16th 2012   09:13 AM

To: Christian Grey

Can’t. I’ve heard rumors GP is chasing a hot new prospective author. I couldn’t let the competition just walk away with a potential best-seller, now could I?”

Anastaisa Grey

Editor-in-Chief, Greenwich Small Press


Piling everything in my arms, I scurry off for my meeting. I’m the last to arrive, which I hate, but part of me can’t stop smiling either. Christian’s email banter is like a homing beacon, drawing me back to him.  

I’ve missed that kind of back and forth between us. I haven’t seen much of his playful side since the end of the fusion project. Actually, I haven’t seen much of anything except the CEO.

Not even the dominant…

I settle down at the head of the long table in the conference room, smiling up at my team. Before I can even start though, Stevens stands so that the entire room turns their attention to him. 

“Did you make a decision on the Hawkins manuscript I sent you on Friday?” 

“I haven’t read it,” I reply, patiently. He gives me the exact bitter look I expect.

“You haven’t approved one of my manuscripts in nearly six weeks. I’ve tried attacking this from all angles, and given you a little bit of everything. What are you looking for?” 

I pause, the corners of my mouth creeping up into a smile. “Do you want to tell them, Jacki?” 

She blushes. “I uh… I found a piece that Ana approved.” 

My entire staff reacts, most faces going blank with shock, a few eyes widening with excitement. 

“She’s underselling it,” I say proudly. “I started it Saturday morning and I was on the phone with the author’s agent that night to schedule a meeting. Jacki and I are having lunch with him this afternoon to try and get him to sign with us.” 

“Try?” Stevens raises an eyebrow. 

“He has other offers. At least two other publishing houses.” 

“Grey Publishing?” Roger, the man who’d made his suspicions about my connections to GP known on day one, looks at me with apprehension. 

“Yes,” I reply, purposely ensuring my voice holds the exact same amount of confidence as before. The nervous glances around the table tell me my team doesn’t feel the same. 

“We’ve never been able to poach an author from GP. Elizabeth Morgan has basically unlimited resources to invest in her authors. Your… er… husband gives her anything she asks for.” 

Sometimes, the competition between Christian and I can be fun. Sometimes, it makes my mouth taste like bile. 

“Well, I doubt she’s going to get much out of him right now.” My tone is brisk, a warning that any further conversation about Chrisitan will lead them into something treacherous. They seem to get the message because when I move on to review the latest sales reports, no one says a word.

Once my meeting ends, I do the same thing via video call with the New York office. Now that I have a prospect for our next big release, one that I think will actually meet Carmen’s impossible demands for 50,000 units, I’m willing to ease the reins on the New York press a little. There’s a coffee table book I think will sell well this fall, so with maybe too much hope, I give the release my approval.

I only have a few minutes once my meetings end before Jacki and I need to leave for our lunch. I stop by her desk before we head out to give her a pep-talk.

“You ready?” 

“I don’t know. I think so.” She looks a little green. “I’d feel better if I didn’t feel like the entire future of the company was basically riding on us convincing him to sign. Rodger wasn’t wrong. We’ve never beat GP on a signing. Not even close.” 

“Don’t worry about any of that. You have had incredible success this year. He would be lucky to have you representing his work. We just need to make him see that, which…” I hold up a folder filled with the data I compiled from Jacki’s last release. “You can leave to me.” 

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Ana.” 

“Oh, you’d be fucked.” I smile, then I gesture for her to lead the way to the door. Luke is there waiting for us and between the two of us, we get Jacki so hyped that by the time we pull up to the restaurant, she’s almost forgotten that failure is even a possibility. It makes me radiate with happiness, which I direct straight at Luke. Once again, I’m reminded that he’s not just a hired bodyguard. He’s my partner in crime. 

The restaurant where I’m taking Lyonel Pierce, our potential new author, is the kind I had to drop Christian’s name at in order to get a reservation. It’s not the typical kind of place we’d meet with authors, but I’m desperate for this signing and I’m pulling out all of the stops. Even if that means dipping into my own pocketbook to make it happen…

The host leads us to a semi-private table near the back that sits in front of huge windows that provide scenic views of the sound. We’re the first to arrive, so I order wine for the table, because it’s what Christian would do. I even order a bottle I’ve seen in his private stores down in my cellar. It arrives at the same time as Lyonel and his agent, Collin Bennett.

“Collin!” I greet him with warm familiarity, as though we are old friends. I’ve never actually met him in my life, but I figure it can’t hurt to try and jump ahead a few steps in our working relationships, considering the other two Seattle publishing houses have a head start. 

“Anastasia,” he replies. Where I may be too familiar, my name sounds awkward and unnatural coming from his lips. Lyonel seems to notice. 

“You’ve met before?” 

“We spoke on the phone.” I give him my most dazzling smile and motion for him to sit down. He does and the waiter begins to fill his glass with the wine I’ve selected. I order appetizers and try to keep the conversation fun and casual all the way up until our entrees arrive. 

When the time finally comes for us to make our pitch, Jacki and I work flawlessly with one another. She reassures him of the process, I spell out all of the resources we’re able to provide in support. She tells him how hard she’ll work for him, I offer the numbers that back up her claims. By the time we’re finished, his agent looks intrigued. Lyonel is unreadable. 

“Well, what do you think?” Collin asks, his attention zeroed in on only his client.

“It all sounds great,” he says. “But… I looked into your company a little bit and your last release vastly underperformed. I read that you had cancelled one of your authors’ second options because you were having some financial problems. Is that something that could happen to me if I were to sign with you?” 

Jacki’s mouth thins so much, it isn’t even visible anymore. I offer him a reassuring smile. 

“There are never any guarantees. But I have absolutely every hope, every reason to believe that you are going to be a huge success. You do this with us, you give us your full commitment to making this release as loud as it can be, and we’ll take care of you.” 

He frowns, contemplating. I can see the decision rolling around in his brain behind his eyes. But just as I’m about to close the deal, I’m interrupted by a very embarrassed looking restaurant manager. 

“Excuse me, Mrs. Grey. I’m afraid your credit card has been declined.” 

I blink. “That’s impossible.” 

“I’m very sorry, but we’ve tried it three times.” 

He hands back my American Express, and I stare down at it in confusion. How could it possibly be declined? It doesn’t even have a limit… 

“Do you have another form of payment?” 

“Uh…” I reach for my purse, catching the uneasy glances Lyonel shoots at Collin. It makes the empty card slots in my wallet feel like open wounds. 

Fuck!

“Here,” Luke says from across the table, reaching into his wallet for his own credit card. A strange mixture of gratitude and shame flashes like a shock of heat over my skin. Privately, I give him a look that tells him that I’m not going to leave him on the hook for this. 

The bottle of wine I ordered was $1,500 alone.

“So,” I start again, stumbling slightly as I try to regain my bearings. “What do you say, Lyonel? Are you willing to take this chance with us?” 

He takes a deep breath, his fingers nervously toying with the napkin in front of him.

“I need to think about it,” he says at last. “Review my options.” 

My stomach drops as if he said no. My intuition tells me he did. I try to summon words, any coherent words to offer him, even just to stall. But the only thing I can think of is the coffee table book I approved earlier that morning. 

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

Lyonel gets up from the table and I walk him all the way to his car, making appeals the entire way. I’m trying to keep the increasingly urgent desperation I feel from leaking into my voice, but lyonel’s reaction makes me think that maybe it does. 

“Thank-you, Mrs. Grey,” he says, reaching out to shake my hand before he climbs into his car. “I’ll be in touch.” 

“I look forward to it,” I say weakly. The car pulls away, and the reality of what just slipped through my fingers hits me like a bucket of ice cold water. 

“Come on,” Luke says, coming up behind me and rubbing the goosebumps from my arms. “Let’s go back and you can figure out how you’re going to fix this.” 

I don’t go back to the office. I can’t face my employees until I once again come up with a plan to trudge forward. So, once I drop Jacki off at GSP, I stop by GEH to pick up Calliope and Kensie, and the four of us head home. 

Strangely, the house is empty when we arrive, and Gail didn’t leave a note to say where she’d gone, or if she’d be back to prepare dinner. I send her a text to find out as Kensie sets Calliope up on the floor with enough activities to keep her from wandering too much, but there’s no answer. 

Luke spreads out on the couch, and turns on the TV. I take a seat next to my baby, far enough away that she doesn’t take an interest in the stacks of papers I lay out on the coffee table, close enough that I can tickle her with my toes every time she does something so adorable that I can’t let it slide without giving her some kind of affection. It happens enough that, before I know it, I’m sprawled out on my back, holding her over me, bouncing her just enough to make her giggle. All of my worries and stress from the day seem to wash off me with the sound of her laughter. I glance up to see if Luke is as engrossed in the sound as I am, but he’s not looking at us. He’s frowning down at his phone.

“Problem?” I ask, sitting up and caging Calliope inside my arms and legs.

He shakes his head, and I see the brief flash of pain break through the mask he’s worn all day. 

“Is it Jade?” 

“No.” His voice is quiet, almost a whisper. “In fact, it isn’t Jade. I texted her this morning. She hasn’t responded.” 

“Maybe she’s just busy.” 

“Maybe.” 

I frown, then look down at Calliope, who is bouncing up and down in my arms to the music in a commercial playing over my shoulder. I scoop her up and drop her into Luke’s lap, knocking the phone right out of his hands. 

“Ana!” 

“Just hold her for a minute,” I tell him, as though I know a secret that he doesn’t. He glares at me, but his arms instinctively wrap around my daughter. 

“Hi, Wook,” she says, bouncing in his lap a little. He smiles at her. 

“Hey there, Calliope Kate.” She lets out a cackily laugh. When he joins in with her, she slowly pulls herself to her feet, unsteady on his legs, but held firmly by Luke’s sure hands. She leans forward and wraps her full pink lips around the tip of his nose. 

“Ew!” he laughs, his voice alight with joy. “What are you doing, Callie?” 

“Kissy,” she replies. He leans forwards and starts kissing her all over her face. Thirty seconds and he’s completely melted. The happiness Calliope can inspire in just about anyone she comes into contact with can be a powerful drug. Even if it’s only a placebo. 

We get up then to get her dinner ready, since I still haven’t heard from Gail. I take my time, lingering at the table long after Calliope is finished eating. Chrisitan hasn’t made it home in time to put her to bed in… I don’t even know the answer to that. I want to try and keep her up for him, but, eventually, she starts to nod off in her high chair.

“I’m going to get the munchkin ready for bed,” I tell Luke, getting up and pulling Calliope into my arms. She cuddles into me, nestling her face in the crook of my neck. 

“Okay, you want me to do something about dinner for us? I can order a pizza.” He gives me a devilish grin. “Don’t worry. I know how hard up for cash you are right now, so it’s my treat.”

I glare at him. “Pizza sounds great. I’ll grab some cash.” 

The pizza is waiting for me by the time I get Calliope down, hot and already paid for. He brings a twelve pack of cheap beer from his fridge in the apartment where he, Taylor, Gail, and Kensie live. We spread it all out on the kitchen counter, then move to the living room and start looking for a movie to watch together. 

“Let me guess…” He lets the cursor on the TV hover over It Happened One Night. I smile at him. 

“You’re the sad boy, you choose.” 

“Really?” 

“Really. Lay it on me, Luke. Do your worst.” 

He exits the library of movies stored on the TV and switches over to Netflix, choosing the first movie he sees with fire in the thumbnail. I roll my eyes and start to devour my piece of pizza. I should be working, looking for our next best shot at a mega-successful release, or at least trying to figure out how to keep my publishing house afloat until I do find what I’m looking for, but I’m drained. I need this. Actually, what I need is my husband, but I have no idea when he’ll get home. It’s after nine now…

“Now you see,” Luke says. “That would never happen in real life. Did you see the size of that explosion? No way you’re walking away from that.” 

“Well, not unless you’re Jason Statham.” 

Luke nods, knowingly. “That’s true. The man’s a genius.” 

I want to roll my eyes, but we’re both distracted by the beep of the security alarm that tells us an exterior door has opened. Luke’s hands tighten as we glance over the back of the couch. 

It’s Chrisitan.

He looks exhausted. Worse, he looks half-dead. It’s nearly nine-thirty, which means he’s been in the office for over thirteen hours today. Knowing him, he didn’t take a single break. Still, his eyes manage to find their strength as he glances suspiciously between Luke and I on the couch. 

Luke sighs. “See you tomorrow, Ana.” 

“Good night.” I smile as he gets off the couch and walks back to the kitchen for the abandoned beer.

“Luke,” Chrisitan calls, making him stop with a hunch before he cautiously turns back to face my husband. 

“Mr. Grey?” 

Christian stares back at him for a second, then nods to the beer in his hands. “May I?” 

“Oh,” Luke says, looking down at the half-empty case. “Yeah, sure.” 

He reaches into the box, pulls out a can, and tosses it easily to Christian. Then he looks over at me as though that was one of the weirdest exchanges of his life. “Night, Ana.” 

I wave at him, then turn my attention back to Christian. He reaches into one of the pizza boxes on the counter and pulls out a slice, ignoring the stack of plates as his heavy footfalls lead him into the living room. I eye him curiously, like I’ve never seen the man before. He’s sitting here in a $7,000 Brioni suit, chewing Domino’s pizza and drinking warm Rainier. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Chrisitan drink anything out of a can before.

“How was your day?” I ask.

“Long,” he grunts back. “I’m sorry. I really wanted to be home to put Calliope down with you. I tried. But then my lawyers called…” He shakes his head, as though trying to dispel a bad memory. “How was she?” 

“Good. I pulled her out of daycare early so she and I spent all afternoon together.” 

“Why did you pull her out early? I thought you had a meeting with that new author this afternoon? I expected you’d be drafting contracts when I got home.” 

I frown, shrinking into the sofa cushions next to him. “I did have lunch with a new author today. It didn’t go very well.” 

“Oh… baby.” He reaches for me, pulling me into him, but I squirm away. I lost to him after all, he’s not exactly the person I want to comfort me. Honestly, I’m surprised he’s not gloating. 

“Well he’s going to sign with Elizabeth, so congratulations.” My words are bitter, and they make him smile. It’s the first real spark of life I’ve seen in him since he came through the door. 

“Really?” 

Ah, there’s the gloating

“Mhm. And he was my best shot to right the ship. Now we’re sinking again.” I cross my arms over my chest, trying to hold onto the anger so that my eyes don’t well with helpless tears. It doesn’t matter, Christian can read me like the Sunday paper. 

“There will be others, Ana. You’ll find what you’re looking for and then you’ll work your magic. As much as I would love to see Carmen Gallagher have to choke on that loss, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that you’re going to figure out a way to make this right, and then blow us away with the results.”

He’d have me, right then and there, if I hadn’t heard the rancorous way he’d said Carmen’s name. 

“I thought you and Carmen were friends…ish?” 

He makes a face, almost like what I’ve said has offended him. “Carmen Gallagher and I are not friends. We understand one another. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t feel a grim sense of satisfaction if say… her plane disappeared over the ocean somewhere.” 

“That’s a little much, don’t you think? Everything okay between you two?” 

“Ever since the public found out about my company’s… financial problems.” He says the words like they’re coated in poison. “The vultures have started circling. Carmen Gallagher is a particularly ravenous bottom feeder.” 

I look away from the darkness swirling like smoke in his eyes, and stare down at my fingers instead. “Are we going to be alright, Christian?” My voice is barely audible.

“Of course we are,” he replies. “I don’t want you to worry about anything. Nothing will change for you.” 

“My credit card was declined today.” 

His whole jaw goes tight and a deep line mars his perfect forehead. “What?” 

“When I tried to pay for lunch, they told me my card was no good. Luke had to pay.” 

“I’ll make a phone call tomorrow. That won’t happen again.” His voice is even, calm. But I can hear the anger just below the surface. 

“Chrisitan… “ I angle towards him, snuggling as close as I can without actually crawling into his lap. “Tell me how bad it is.” 

He swallows, then reaches over and cups the side of my face. He stares into my eyes for a long time, stroking his thumb across my cheek as he drinks me in. I almost think he’s going to blow me off entirely until he adjusts in his seat, an arm on the back of the couch propping up his head. His palm falls from my face to my lap.

“Kate threw me a bone. Kavanagh Media is fully switching over to Grey Fiber Optic service starting in August. I’ve got a meeting first thing Monday morning with the CEO of a company in Texas that has government contracts, so if we can make a deal with them, we might have an opening into Texas for another state project. And, we filed for a patent today on a new kind of energy efficient battery that we’ve developed with some recycled tech from the fusion project. My manufacturing plant is going to start production next week. If all of that goes exactly the way I need it to, GEH should stay afloat.”

Should? I swallow against the tightening in my throat. 

“What does that mean for us?” 

“Well…” Again, he pauses. Despite the bombshell he just dropped, he seems even less enthusiastic to share whatever he has to say next. Eventually, he gets up and walks away from me, keeping his back to me as he continues. “Ana, I’m going to be letting some of our staff go.” 

“Which departments?” 

“No, our… personal staff.” 

My mouth falls open. “Chrstian, you can’t fire Luke. He’s only been back one day and–”

“No,” he interrupts me, turning back to face me again. “Not Taylor or Sawyer.” 

“So…?” 

“I’ll speak with Makensie tomorrow morning. Gail left this afternoon.” 

My hand moves up to cover my mouth. It’s the only thing I can think to do because I certainly can’t think of a way to respond to that. Calliope is going to be devastated once she realizes Kensie isn’t coming back. I can’t even bring myself to think about Gail. 

Christian’s head falls, the confession of how dire our situation is breaking him. I’m on my feet in the next second, wrapping my arms around him. 

“I’m so sorry, Ana. I should have listened. I should have seen the evidence of what was right in front of me. I just… I really, really thought I could do this.” 

“I know.” My words are more true than I think he can even know. I felt the same kind of confidence he’s begging me to understand when I walked into that restaurant today. I’d even preemptively made decisions, made promises, assuming I’d already had the deal in the bag. Now, I have nothing. 

It’s poetic in a way. After everything we’ve survived, the thing to truly humble us was our own hubris. For the first time, standing there with him, it feels like we’re just two twenty-something kids who have no idea what the hell we’re doing. 

But neither one of us is a quitter and as long as we have something to fight for, we won’t stop. We have Calliope’s future to think about, and all of the dreams we each want the other to be able to achieve. 

“Don’t give up on me, Ana. Please.” His plea weighs heavy on my heart. I reach up and wrap my arms around his neck, pulling myself up so that my nose is only just not touching his. 

“I’ll never give up on you. We’re going to get through this. No matter what happens, you and I, we’re going to be just fine. You’re enough for me, Christian. You’re more than I ever even dared to be selfish enough to dream about.” 

He leans forward and kisses me, his lips pleading in their want. For a long time, all he does is kiss me. Deep. Slow. Sensual. His tongue caresses mine in a way that makes my entire body tingle. His hands move softly over me, bringing goosebumps to the surface of my skin that only become more pronounced with every soft moan or declaration of love that escapes his lips each and every time we part, even if it’s just for a second. 

God I love him

It’s overwhelming sometimes, like it’s too powerful for me to truly feel in its entirety all at once, because there’s not enough space in my heart to physically contain it all. That if I tried, I would burst apart like a dying star. So, I push into him. The powerful feelings of love and want and belonging overflowing from me, pouring into him. He drinks it all in greedily, like he’s just emerged from the desert after forty long days and nights and my lips are his very first taste of cool, clean water. 

I’m so absorbed in his kiss that I don’t realize it when he sweeps me up into his arms and carries me up the stairs to our bedroom. He falls onto the bed with me, but it could have been the couch or a cloud high above the planet for all I know. I’ve completely disappeared into him and the healing love we share between us. 

Long after our clothes have been tossed to the floor and we’ve both managed to tumble our way back to Earth from an absolutely astounding high, he lays next to me looking much lighter. Sated. He drags his index finger from my collar bones to my belly button, over and over again. We lay there, in comfortable silence, neither one of us quite ready to leave the other for sleep. 

“Do you remember last year when you were still pregnant and you had convinced yourself that I was sleeping with Gia while you were in Cambridge?” he asks. 

Her name makes me cringe with revulsion, but I nod. “I was stupid. It was the hormones.” 

He lets out a soft laugh, then props himself up on his elbows and looks down at me like I’m the most precious thing in the entire world.

“This is why she, and every other girl like her, never held any interest for me. Gia, Leila, even Elena… none of them would be here right now. None of them would have stood by me through this. When you say you love me, you really mean me.” 

“I do.” 

He closes his eyes, as though he’s suddenly in pain. “I don’t deserve you.” 

I take his face in my hands and force him to look up at me. “Yes, Chrisitan. You do. You are every bit the man today that you were before all of this happened. Nothing as stupid as money could ever change that for me. I love you.” 

“Sometimes, love doesn’t feel like enough to describe the way I feel about you.” He kisses me again, and for a moment, I think we’re going to pick up right where we left off. But then he pulls away and brushes his hand tenderly through my hair. “Would you mind if I brought Calliope in here to sleep with us tonight?” 

“You miss her.” It’s a statement, but he answers anyway. 

“More than you could ever know.” 

My face crinkles in pain when I hear the strain behind his words. With the hours he’s been working, he hasn’t really seen her for more than a few minutes a day for nearly a month. 

“Yeah,” I tell him. “Go get her.” He nods and places one last kiss against my lips. 

“I’ll be right back.” 

“I’ll be counting the seconds.” He laughs, but the second his heat disappears from my side, I start to count. 

1, 2, 3…

Chapter 28

There are few things in life I find as engrossing as my daughter’s curls. She gets them from me, but I’ve always resented the everpresent wave in my hair. Not quite straight, not quite curly… some unattractive mix in-between that I’ve spent hours of my life straightening out with a flat iron. Calliope’s are beautiful. Everything about her is so beautiful. 

God, I miss her. 

Mackenzie had already given her dinner and a bath by the time I got home from work. I’d barely got to put her down for bed, and Christian isn’t even home yet. It’s been a long week. A long few weeks. The failure of The Black Rose has been a tough pill to swallow as the reality of our revenue shortages really become apparent. Without Jacki, I don’t think we’d make payroll. I’ve had to significantly cut back production at both the Seattle and the New York Press to keep our overhead low, which a few of my editors have suggested was to keep them from earning their full commissions. The truth is, I don’t want to hinder their sales. I just can’t afford the paper to print their product on.

And Carmen won’t loosen the reins until I find her a unicorn.

 I’ve been working long hours trying to figure out how to gap the difference without having to lose anyone and it’s starting to look like I’m going to have to come up with something a whole lot more innovative than one best selling release to dig us out of the hole we’re in. I just wish I could clear my head enough to think about what that might be. 

One more reason I need tonight to go exactly the way I hope it will.

With one last longing look at my daughter, I hook the baby monitor on the side of her crib, kiss her cheek, and slowly back out of the room. I pause for a second, waiting for any fussy noises, then follow the sounds of the TV coming from my bedroom. Kate is sitting on the bed, breastfeeding Kennedy one last time before she puts her down with Calliope. 

I go into my closet and look at the hangers in front of me. This isn’t a dressy kind of dinner party, I expect everyone to show up in jeans, but I’ve put so much thought into absolutely every other part of tonight that I can’t stop myself from obsessing over this too. I’m like a woman possessed.

“What do you think about this top?” I ask, stepping out of the closet and holding the hanger up for Kate. 

“It’s a little low in the front, don’t you think?” 

“I thought that if tonight doesn’t go well, it might make it easier to distract Christian.” 

She makes a face. “Somehow I think you’re going to have a hard time patching things up between Luke and Chrisitan if you’re sitting at the table with your tits out the whole time. Just a hunch.” 

I turn the top back towards me and look at it again, this time more critically. She has a point. 

“You’re right,” I concede, heading back into the closet. I settle on jeans and one of Christian’s t-shirts, hoping the subtle claim will put him at ease. After quick touch ups on my hair and makeup, I head back out. Kate is now sans Kennedy and fully dressed again, applying lip gloss in the giant mirror across from the bed. Her reflection makes eye contact with me, and the look she gives me says she knows exactly why Christian had that mirror installed in exactly the place and angle it is. I laugh, then drag her out of the room and downstairs. 

The smell hits us before we even make it to the first floor. Garlic, cheese, and the herby aromatic scent of homemade marinara. I’d never thought before what I would serve if I ever had to say… bring the leaders of two warring countries together for a summit at Camp David. But when I found myself planning a dinner that felt exactly of that magnitude, the answer came to me immediately. 

Gail’s lasagna. 

It’s the one thing even the security team will steal out of the freezer, so I know Luke loves it. And anytime Christian gets in the kind of mood where he leaves terror and destruction in his wake, this always finds its way onto our table, and Christian is always appeased afterwards.

“It smells delicious, Gail,” I say, inhaling gratefully as we step into the kitchen. 

“Well it better do the trick,” she says. “I’ve made a tiramisu to go with dinner to make sure of it. I can’t take his mood anymore.” 

Her words should shock me. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard Gail say anything so brazen about Christian before. But, he hasn’t exactly been the easiest person to deal with for the last few weeks. 

Just after GEH announced they were indefinitely postponing the project they had previously promised would create thousands of jobs, a promise they had used to leverage tax cuts, Christian’s fiscal year came to an end. Days later, his end of year financial statements leaked to the public and the real backlash began. I refused to call him a failure, but every publication that’s ever reported on him or his company didn’t. It’s like they’ve been waiting, salivating at the chance to prove Chrisitan Grey was just a flash in the pan, and his spectacular fall from grace was something they knew would happen all along. He says he doesn’t care what the press says, but I know better. I can see it in his eyes. 

He’s humiliated.

“I’m going to go check on the table,” I tell Gail, feeling again how necessary it is for tonight to go absolutely perfect. She smiles, a promise that I’ll love what I find sparkling in her eyes. And Gail is an honest woman. The table on our veranda has been set for six. A long grapevine spotted with several different herbs weaves it way around each plate and wine glass. There is an amazing charcuterie board already on the table, along with several dishes of olive oil for the bread Gail has spent the last two days making. Overhead, twinkle lights wink happily under the dark overhang of the house. They, along with the fireplace on the other side of the open, outdoor patio space, provide the perfect amount of light for us to see each other comfortably. But, there’s not enough to erase the dancing reflections of light on the water at the end of our property. 

It really does look perfect. 

I’m just adjusting a fork on the table when I hear the doorbell ring and I dash inside. Kate and Elliot stand together in the main room, already starting on a glass of wine. I move past them so quickly, I nearly beat Taylor to the door. 

“Mrs. Grey!” he calls, and I stop immediately. He moves towards me and places a single finger on my shoulder to nudge me back several steps away from the door. Only then does he open it, but the second I see Luke, I rush past Taylor and jump at him. 

“Luke!” 

“Hey, Ana.” He chuckles, but the tightness of his arms around me tells me just how much he’s missed me too. When he lets me go, I turn to Jade and hug her just as eagerly. 

“I love your hair,” I tell her when I pull away, capturing the end of a long, wavy tendril. She looks like a mermaid. 

“Oh, it’s awful! Luke and I were playing beach volleyball over in West Seattle all day and we swam a bit. I told him not to get my hair wet and he immediately dumped me in the water so… now it looks like this.” 

“Luke!” I’m indignant on her behalf. He just rolls his eyes. 

“She said she wanted to swim, there was no way she wasn’t going to get her hair wet. This way, we didn’t have to waste any time before the inevitable happened. And look, she’s just as beautiful now as she was when her hair was straight.” He frowns. “It was straight before, wasn’t it?” 

I slap him across the chest and Jade laughs. Taylor coughs behind us. 

“Mrs. Grey, perhaps you’d like to come into the house and finish this conversation?” 

“Yeah,” Luke agrees for me, stepping to the side so we can go in first. “Ladies.” 

I sigh, then hook my arm through Jade’s and drag her inside. 

“Mr. Sawyer,” Taylor says, so formally the words sound weird coming out of his mouth. “May I take your, uh…” 

I follow his gaze to the bottle of tequila in Luke’s hand, which he passes to me. 

“I was going to bring wine, but Grey has a whole room full of wine fancier than anything I can afford. So, I brought this just for you.” 

“Perfect,” I laugh. We move through the hall to join Kate and Elliot, and the second Taylor disappears into his office, Luke leans in to whisper in my ear. 

“Mrs. Grey and Mr. Sawyer, huh? We really are in trouble.” 

“You have no idea,” I grumble. I haven’t so much as gone to the bathroom without Taylor shadowing me since the Scott incident, the reminder of which must show up on my face in some way, because Luke gives me a quick, suspicious look. I’m not going to tell him about Scott, though. I’m already having a hard time keeping Christian from finishing the job he started back in New York, and we only just barely avoided legal trouble from that encounter because of some very scary and expensive attorneys Christian hired to respond to the assault charges Scott filed against him. I don’t need Luke getting himself into trouble too. Thankfully, Elliot calls his name so he turns away from me and smiles. 

We migrate out onto the veranda, pouring wine between us as we settle into conversation. Luke and Elliot are mad about some call made during the Mariners game the night before, which I couldn’t care less about. So instead, Kate and I steal Jade’s attention. Remembering the concerns my best friend had shared with me over the phone, I take the opportunity to talk him up. 

 “I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” Jade says after Kate tells her about the kayaking trip she and Elliot are going on later in the summer. 

“You should go!” I encourage her. 

Jade crinkles her nose. “Luke wouldn’t want to do anything like that. He’s not really an ‘outdoors’ kinda guy.” 

“That’s not true. He and I used to do outdoorsy stuff all the time. A couple years ago, he and I went mountain climbing in Vermont.” My voice is a little louder than I mean for it to be, probably because of the wine, so both Elliot and Luke are looking at me now. I call him in for reinforcement. “Right, Luke?”

He furrows his brow. “I remember being tricked up a mountain.” 

Clearly, Jade doesn’t talk as loudly as I do. 

“You drove, I’d hardly call that tricking you.” 

“You said you wanted to go on a hike.” 

“It was a hike.” I focus my gaze on him. Let me help you, Luke. He seems to pick up that he should drop it, but apparently not why. 

“Whatever you say, Steele.” 

“Grey,” a voice says from the door. We all turn to look at the same time and find Chrisitan hovering in the doorway. 

“Christian!” I say brightly, inviting him to the seat next to me with a warm smile. He doesn’t come to me. He’s not even looking at me. He’s staring straight at Luke. 

“Her name isn’t Steele anymore, it’s Grey,” he says again. Luke nods. 

“Yeah, I know. Grey.” 

They stare tensely at one another for a long minute until Gail comes through the door around him, carrying her lasagna. Just as I hoped it would, it lures Chritian to the table. 

He slides into the chair next to me, scooting it close to mine so he can easily rest his hand on my knee. He leans over to kiss me, letting his lips linger against mine for longer than is appropriate for company. Like the statement I tried to make earlier by wearing his clothes, it’s a claim, and I let him stake it. 

It’s the only way I can think to make him feel like he doesn’t have to. 

Elliot coughs. “Okay, Christian. Do you wanna pee on her too?” 

Christian pulls away, but his eyes stay on mine. “Hi.” 

“How was your day?” 

He sighs, pushing away from me, and pulls out his phone. I glare at it. The damn thing has been glued to the inside of his palm for weeks. “I’m being sued by an investor,” he says.

My brow crinkles with concern and I reach out to touch him, but he brushes me off. 

“It’s fine. It’s not like he flew my wife all the way across the fucking country to have a meeting with Astor Harrington so she could hire him behind my back without saying a goddamn word, so he’s not even the worst person I’ve had to deal with today.” 

I blanch and my face heats with humiliation. “Christian, you promised.” 

“Yeah, well you can’t always hold me to the things I say in bed, sweetheart. Especially not in the way you made me say it.” 

Okay, that had been a dirty trick. But so is this. 

“Christian, can I…” 

“Ana,” Luke interrupts, holding up a hand to stop me. “It’s fine.” 

Christian glances up at him with cool eyes, but Luke doesn’t cower.

“I didn’t work for you anymore,” he says calmly. “I wasn’t under any obligation to report anything to you.” 

“She’s my wife,” Christian growls. 

“And why was she there in the first place, Grey? Why was she worried about him? Who did she think he would come after?” 

“Careful, Sawyer.” Chrisitan’s voice is a warning. A final one. And for some baffling reason, Luke looks like he wants to press it. 

“Baby, have some wine,” I say, picking up the bottle and pouring it with a heavy hand into Christian’s glass. Elliot jumps on the opportunity to change the subject. 

“Yeah, let’s eat. I’ve been smelling that lasagna for an hour and I’m starving.” There’s a murmur of agreement around the table, then dishes are passed around. Christian picks up his glass and drinks half of it. 

I keep it full. 

The food does the trick. Everyone is so enamored with the lasagna that the mood around the table elevates dramatically, and the conversation flows more naturally. Christian’s fingers even loosen their death grip from the inside of my thigh. Instead, he passes his fingertips gently across my skin, sending tingles skipping through me. I set my fork down, unable to eat another bite, and cuddle into him while Elliot finishes selling Kate up the river for the lengths she’s been willing to go to in order to get the inside scoop on some senator who might be having an affair. 

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a call from the police saying she’s been picked up for stalking. And then what would I tell Kennedy?” 

“That her mom is a badass,” Kate laughs. She looks at me, green eyes glinting with hunger. “I’m this close to nailing him, Ana. This close.” 

“Well, if you need any pointers, I’m sure Sawyer has some useful advice,” Chrisitan interjects. “How was it you found out the last mayor was having an affair before you got that tape and used it to get my dad elected? Does that require a similar skill set than say… tracking someone’s immigration status, or is it a more complicated operation?” 

Luke grinds his teeth. “It wasn’t any more difficult than being asked to follow around a nineteen year old girl for two years and lie about why.” 

“Dessert!” I shriek, feeling the escalation coming from Chrisitan like the eye of a storm. “There’s tiramisu in the fridge, will you please go get it?” 

Christian turns to me, anger coloring every feature of his beautiful face. He picks up the napkin off his lap and throws it on the table, prowling away from us like a hungry jungle cat checking the perimeter before setting in for the kill. 

“Stop antagonizing him!” I snap, throwing the end of a breadstick at Luke. He looks incensed. 

“Me? He’s the one throwing punches. What am I supposed to do? Take it like a bitch?” 

“No, but pissing him off more isn’t helping. We were wrong, Luke. We need to eat a little crow to gain some trust back.” 

“He’s not as right as you think he is, Ana.” 

“Then, please,” Christian snarls from behind him, the tiramisu in his hands. “Tell me how I’m wrong, Sawyer.” This time, the malice in Christian’s voice is enough that Luke actually jumps a little. But he recovers quickly. 

“She wasn’t paranoid. She was afraid people were following her, I’ve dealt with her stalkers. She was afraid people were watching her, I’ve taken spyware off her phone and computer. Any time you do anything, the paparazzi swarm her. She has been targeted again and again and…” His words cut off, like he knows better than to actually say them aloud, but he’s physically shaking holding them back. 

“Go ahead, Luke,” Christian says, almost taunting him. He takes a step closer, tossing the dish that contains the dessert on the table, and both Jade and I exchange nervous glances. Elliot motions for Kate to stand up and back away from the table a few steps, then he gets up and moves closer to his brother. 

Luke shakes his head. “Why doesn’t she have a CPO?” 

“She does and I’m about ten seconds away from asking him to see you out.” 

“Taylor isn’t good for Ana.” 

“He’s the best there is.” 

Not for Ana. Taylor is strict. He doesn’t know when to let her get away with something harmless and just take the heat for it himself, and when he needs to actually stop her. He just follows your orders to a T.” 

“That’s what makes him a good CPO, Sawyer.” 

“No, that’s what’s going to get her hurt. Because no matter how necessary she knows our presence is, she hates it. She hates being watched all the time, and she hates feeling like she’s being babysat. Eventually, she’s going to find an excuse to rebel against it. You’re right. Taylor is the best, and Taylor will stop her. But all that means is that she’s going to do something stupid to try and trick him.” His eyes narrow. “Sometimes you have to let her go get a milkshake with Kate at midnight and act like you’re mad that she got around you so that she won’t figure out how to actually get around you.” 

“Hey!” I interject, but neither of them look at me. They continue glaring at each other, Christian moving another inch closer. 

“You think you really know best how to protect her? You were the one putting her in danger. You were the one encouraging the insane fucking behavior that could have put her directly in harm’s way.” 

“You think I helped her because I was proud of what we were doing? Because I thought it was a good idea? I said she wasn’t paranoid, I didn’t say she wasn’t stupid. I helped her because, if I didn’t, she would have found someone else, and it wouldn’t have been Taylor or Woods. It would be someone none of us would know about because she wanted it to be kept from you. I helped her so I could be there to keep her safe. I helped her so that I could talk her out of it. Hate me all you want, Grey, I did it because I care about her and I didn’t want to see her get hurt trying to keep herself from getting hurt.” 

“Yeah, why don’t you tell me more about how much you care for my wife?” 

“More than you’re ever going to be comfortable with. I’m not in love with Anastasia, Christian. But I do love her. She’s the only family I have. I’m not going to sleep with her, I’m not going to try and take her from you. I’m not even under the illusion that I could if I wanted to. Which. I. Don’t. So, if you want to be an asshole to me, be an asshole. It’s not going to chase me away from Ana. If you wanna hit me, take your best shot. I’m not going to fight back and turn her against me. Otherwise, you need to get the fuck over it.” 

You could hear a pin drop.

I fully expect Christian to punch him. I can almost see him visualising it behind his hurricaine gray eyes. But he doesn’t. He considers him carefully, his body solid as ice. And by the time he speaks, he still hasn’t thawed. 

“I know how this ends. I know that I can’t keep you out of Ana’s life. I know that trying to do that will make her very unhappy, and that goes against absolutely every fucking thing I’ve ever promised her. But you came between us, Sawyer. You helped her put up a wall I didn’t even know I had to tear down. Why should I trust you ever again?” 

“Because we both want the same thing.” 

It takes a while, but Chistian nods. “Fine, you start Monday. Ana and I go to work together to take Calliope to daycare. Be ready to leave by eight. Woods’ room is empty, you can start moving in tonight. Taylor will make whatever arrangements you need.” 

I take a deep breath, a smile breaking across my face as I realize what’s happening. It worked! Oh my god, it really fucking worked!

“No,” Luke says. 

Christian blinks, uncomprehending. “Excuse me?” 

“No. I’ve got a life now.” He looks back at Jade. “I’m not giving her up, and I can’t have her and do this job at the same time. So, I’m sorry, but no.”

“No?” Christian repeats. “Jesus, Sawyer. What the fuck was all that bullshit about Taylor for, then?” 

“I meant that. Ana needs someone, just not him.” 

“Well who the fuck do you suggest? I can’t get anyone to take the job!” 

“Get Woods back. He was almost decent. A few more months and he could be…” 

“She was out of that hotel room for an hour and he didn’t even know.” 

“I’ve gone more than an hour without checking on Ana before.” 

Christian gives him a hard look. “Let’s play a game, shall we? Let’s say that Ana is going to be spending a night alone. I’m not even in the same city, neither is Kate. But she tells you that she doesn’t want your company. She wants to be by herself. She’s just going to stay in her room, so you don’t even have to worry about her. You can have the night off. What would you do?” 

Luke frowns. “Stand outside her door until she tried to sneak out.” 

“Exactly. Whoever I assign to Ana also ends up with Calliope, and I’m not trusting my entire existence to someone who can be fooled by an excuse that didn’t work on my parents when I was fifteen.” 

“Okay, what about…” 

“Luke.” This time, it’s Jade who interjects. “You should take the job.” 

“No, you don’t know what that means. It’s not like a 9-5, it’s a lifestyle. I’d have to live here, spend all my time going where Ana goes, even when she travels. I couldn’t be with you anymore…” 

She presses her lips together, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “You’re not with me now.” 

Luke goes stiff. “What?” 

“You haven’t been you ever since you two got back from New York, and tonight… I think I finally know why. You’ve told me all about what you used to do. You loved it. You miss it. You miss her. And it’s been killing you to be away. This is where you want to be. You should take the job.”

“Jade–”

She steps forward and kisses him on the cheek. “It’s okay. It’s probably better this way.” 

Then she leaves. Without a single look back, she walks to the door and disappears into my house. Luke shoots a pained, almost sick look at me before he runs after her, calling her name. The rest of us stand there, unmoving, unsure of what to do. Unsure of what just happened…

Sunday morning, Luke pulls a uHaul into my driveway.

Next Chapter

Chapter 27

Just how bad Christian fucked up, we don’t get to see until that weekend. We get back to Seattle late Friday night, too late to even pick up Calliope from Kate and Elliot’s. So Saturday morning is the soonest we can make it to the remote testing site where Christian stores his fusion project. Elliot is waiting for us there, at Christian’s request, but when we pull up beside him, he doesn’t even look at us. He’s staring at the building in front of us, shaking his head in disbelief. 

“Oh my god,” I whisper, stepping out of the car and surveying the damage in front of me. 

The testing site is a large, rectangular building, all white with industrial doors and windows. Almost exactly half of the building looks as though it recently survived a bombing, with repeated volleys. Any windows still attached to the structure are wrapped in cellophane and a few smaller holes have been covered with bright blue tarps. Most of that half of the building has been completely blown apart and it’s left the paint over the entire front of the structure singed black. 

“Jesus,” Chrisitan says, walking forward and stopping with his hands on his hips. A hot flash of anger moves through me and I round on him. 

“Another explosion?!” 

He doesn’t answer. He takes my hand and pulls me toward the building. 

The damage is worse inside. Entire walls are missing, rooms have been gutted… we’re handed hard hats before we’re even allowed to enter the lab. 

“What happened?” Christian demands as we approach Welch. 

“We couldn’t contain the heat. It got out of control.”

“What about the cooling system? The suppression system?” 

“They worked fine… until they burned inside the housing unit.” 

“What does that mean?” 

Elliot takes a step forward and picks up one of the prototypes that managed to survive the explosion. Even though it wasn’t the one that exploded, it still looks like something that was recovered from a plane crash. He turns toward Christian and starts explaining about heat and friction, using the model in his hands to illustrate the point. I’m distracted from what he’s telling us by two people who enter the lab from an entrance opposite the one we came through.

 It’s Ros, talking to a guy in a white lab coat and surveying the damage with a look that’s made up of defeat, disgust, and a hundred other emotions too embroiled with one another to separate. 

“It’s like I said when you brought this up last February,” Elliot finishes, tossing the prototype back on the counter like a piece of junk. “Perpetual motion is a fantasy. You can’t overcome friction.” 

Welch shakes his head in defiance. The same unshakable look of determination I’ve seen in Christian’s eyes over the last few months is reflected in his. “What if we detach the core from the housing unit? Make a floating structure around it that can absorb the energy and redistribute it back into the mechanism without transferring any of that energy into the structure?” 

Elliot shakes his head. “What would you make it out of that wouldn’t melt or reflect enough potential energy to throw off the equilibrium of your core?” 

“Well, we could… uh…” He stops, clearly racking his brain for answers but also dismissing each and every idea he comes up with. Before he’s able to offer a solution, Ros stomps past me, past Elliot, past Welch, and steps right up to Christian. 

“I got the estimate. Wanna take a guess?” 

He glares at her. “Not really.” 

“$128 million. You just blew up another $128 million!  You wanna write the check for that? Because I don’t know that GEH can anymore, Christian.” 

They stare at one another, two unyielding titans battling it out until one of them breaks. When it happens, it’s not the one I expect. 

“Alright,” Christian says. “Shut it down.” 

Ros blinks, looking as though that was the very last thing she expected him to say. “What?” 

“Shut it down. All of it. Clean it up, pack it away, get it out of here.” 

“Mr. Grey!” Welch protests, but he silences him with a sharp look. 

“I said shut it down.” Christian reaches for me, pulling me after him as he storms out of the lab. I hear a crash, followed by several loud clangs, like metal tumbling across concrete. Glancing back over my shoulder, I see that it’s because Welch threw the destroyed prototype across the room. His whole team is bent over the table, heads hung in vanquish. Ros watches us go, shaking her head like she isn’t sure what in the world she is going to do next. 

It’s a longer and more convoluted drive to Kate and Elliot’s house in Medina than it would have been to go straight home to Seattle. I see Elliot’s car behind us in the side view mirror the entire drive there, but I only catch a glimpse of his face a few times. He looks worried, and so am I. There was something hanging in the air of the lab when we left, something no one was willing to say out loud, but that everyone clearly knows. Everyone except me. But with the way Chrisitan looks as he mindlessly follows the highway, I don’t think now is the time to press about it.

We pull up to Kate and Elliot’s house and follow him inside through the garage. Kate is on the couch, the babies both napping in a playpen a few feet away. A long investigative report on medical record fraud sits in her lap. She smiles as we file into the room. 

“How’d it go?” 

“Christian finally saw reason and ended his fusion project,” Elliot answers. 

She turns slowly toward my husband, a taunting smile spreading slowly across her face. “Awh, I didn’t take you for a quitter, Grey.” 

Christian goes rigid and stays that way for several seconds. Kate blanches. It had been a joke, but he doesn’t take it well. When he thaws, it’s only enough so that he can move. 

He goes to the playpen and gently lifts Calliope into his arms while he scans the room for her carseat. Once he locates it, he looks at me and motions to the door. 

“Let’s go, I’ve got work to do.” 

My mouth pops open in protest, but snaps shut at the look I get in return. I nod, reluctantly, and turn to give Kate a tight smile. The disappointment I see in her eyes echoes my own. We’ve been gone all week and I’ve barely even had the chance to talk to her. This morning, I’d hoped we were going to spend the afternoon here. Maybe even call Grace and Carrick to meet us somewhere for dinner. 

It doesn’t look like any of that is happening. 

Christian skips hugs from Kate and his brother and makes a beeline out the door with the baby. By the time I’ve said my goodbyes and finally get out of the house, Calliope is already buckled in the back and he’s waiting in the driver’s seat, the car idling. I slide in next to him, barely getting the door closed before he starts out of the driveway. 

“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask, hesitantly, once he’s turned onto the 520. He shakes his head, not even bothering to speak aloud. It drives me nuts, not knowing what he’s thinking. Especially with the amount of tension I can feel rolling off of him and filling the car like a toxic pool. I’m desperate to know exactly what he’s putting himself through so I can stop it. 

Reaching past the console between us, I move my fingers into his hair, lightly scratching his scalp with my nails. For a second, he lets me. He leans into my touch, breathing deeply as he does. But then he reaches back and pulls my hand away. He doesn’t release me, though. He holds my hand in his lap and every so often, he lifts my fingertips to his lips. 

Once we’re home, he goes straight into his office and I get the sinking feeling I won’t see him for the rest of the day. It’s as good an excuse as any to get some work done myself. So, after I move Calliope into her bed, I take the baby monitor to my office and settle down with my laptop. It’s only been a week, but running two branches is already proving to be a much bigger task than I’d anticipated. I forced the  Seattle branch to change their strategy and eliminate the volume model they’d used before. Scott didn’t do the same for his branch, and now taking on the New York office has more than doubled the amount of work I have to do on any given day. 

With an air of dread, I open my email, only to be immediately sidetracked when my phone rings. It’s a welcome distraction, though. An elated smile crosses my lips the moment I read the name on the caller ID.

“Hey, Luke,” I answer. 

“Okay, so here’s what we tell him. I had a brain tumor that impaired my judgement, right? But I’ve had it removed now and now I’m cured!” 

I laugh. Luke and I haven’t seen each other since the night Christian caught us in New York. Christian hasn’t explicitly asked me not to, but I see the tightness in his jaw and the dark shadow that clouds his eyes whenever Luke calls. I don’t think it’s a great idea to invite him over to veg out on the couch. Not yet. Not today.

“I don’t think that’s going to work.” 

“C’mon, Ana,” he complains. “Just come over for a few hours. You can bring your new CPO. I need to make sure this guy is up to snuff anyway, and I’m sure you need to get started on torturing him with It Happened One Night. Or we could pick something new, just for him. Like, Casablanca. God, I’d give anything for those two hours back.” 

I laugh. “Sorry, Luke. I think Taylor actually likes black & white movies. He’s not completely devoid of taste like you.” I smile to myself, waiting for some biting remark about my music. 

“Taylor?” he says instead. “Where’s your CPO?”

“Well…” I chew on my lip, feeling the now all too familiar feeling of guilt filling my stomach. “Apparently, Taylor is having a hard time filling the job.” 

“Why? Everyone wants to move out of GEH to personal security. It’s more than double the pay.” 

“I guess people have noticed that my CPOs never last very long. No one wants to end up unemployed.” 

“So, what? You just don’t have anyone with you? Are you alone in your office downtown everyday?” The accusation in his voice gets stronger with each word. Clearly, he isn’t pleased with the idea. 

“No, I have Taylor.” 

He lets out a harsh, irritated breath, but doesn’t push it any further. “Will you come over here?” 

“It’s not a good day, Luke. Christian…” I look at the door, imagining Chrisitan in his own office and feeling myself sink again. “It’s just not a good day.” 

“That sucks. I’m used to seeing you all day, every day. Now it’s like… I don’t know. I’m just lonely, I guess.” 

“What about Jade?” 

“Yeah, I’ve got Jade.” He lets out a low sigh, one I know very well. 

“Uh, oh. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I think… These past few days, every time she looks at me, it’s like… she’s looking for something that’s missing. I think she’s getting bored with me.” 

“That doesn’t seem possible.” 

He laughs. “It is though. I’m a boring guy. I’m trained to be hyper aware of my surroundings at all times and I can’t turn it off, so going out is exhausting most of the time. We don’t have any friends in common, except you… and I can’t even see you anymore. I don’t know, Ana. I think she’s going to dump me.” 

“Luke…” My heart feels heavy in my chest. A year ago, I thought Luke and I would grow old together. Not the way Christian and I would, of course. I pictured him, long after he’d retired from being my bodyguard, moving into an apartment in my house where he’d live out the rest of his days like Joey from Full House. He doesn’t have anyone else. Only me. So, when he’d told me he’d fallen in love with Jade, I’d started to imagine a whole new life for him. A future where he’d have a family of his own, maybe kids. Hearing the sadness in his words now as he worries he’s about to lose her makes me wonder if he’d imagined a future like that too.

“I just don’t know what to do about it. I’d take her anywhere she wanted to go, but we don’t have anyone to do anything with. Maybe I can call Kate, see if she’ll invite Jade and me the next time she and Elliot go off together.” 

That would be perfect, except that Kate just had a baby. 

“It’s the Fourth of July soon and we’re probably going out on the yacht. You can bring Jade!” 

“Yeah, I’m sure Grey would love to spend an entire weekend trapped with me at sea. If you’re trying to murder your husband, there are faster ways to do it than giving him high blood pressure, Ana.” 

I laugh. “You leave Christian to me.” 

“I don’t know.” 

“He’s going to have to get over it eventually. You’re my best friend, you’re going to be around. I want you around. Besides, there’s a good possibility that Kim is going to be there with her kids and I could use a buffer.” 

“Kate. Elliot. Your dad. Your husband. Both of your in-laws. Your baby…” 

“As many buffers as humanly possible.” 

He laughs again. “ I don’t know, Ana. I don’t want to start another fight between the two of you. I think a whole weekend might be too much to start with. Maybe we could… have dinner or something? All of us. Kate and Elliot too.” 

“I can set that up. We’ll do dinner at my place next Friday.” 

“You’re sure that’s okay?” 

“It’s more than okay. In fact, I insist.” 

“Okay, we’ll go.” He pauses. “Thank you. I’ve been driving myself crazy thinking about what I’m going to do with Jade for days.” 

“You know I’d do anything for you, Luke. Now, get off the phone with me and call your girlfriend. It is a Saturday and you are going to take her out on a date tonight. Somewhere loud and crowded that you’ll hate. That’s an order.” 

“I’m done taking your orders, Steele. I don’t work for you anymore.” 

“You’ll never be done taking my orders, Sawyer.” I laugh, then hang up the phone. I decide to text Kate and ask her to send Luke ideas for places he’ll be able to take Jade, but while I’m answering all of the questions she shoots back to me, I hear Calliope begin to cry through the baby monitor. 

So much for getting any work done.

Christian doesn’t come out of his office to join us for dinner. He doesn’t come out of his office at all. Just after I get Calliope down for bed, I drag my laptop down to the couch with me, but I’m pulled from the manuscript I’m reading by the sound of the doorbell. In the distance, I hear the muffled sounds of Taylor greeting whoever it is and a few seconds later, Ros walks into my living room. She goes straight into Christian’s office without saying a word to me, and closes the door behind her. By the time she emerges again, I’ve fallen asleep on top of my computer.

“Ros?” I call, rubbing my eyes with the back of my hand as I sit up. She steps back into the room, looking completely drained. “How is he?” 

“Not good.” She shakes her head. “It’s not good, Ana.” 

“What do you mean?” 

She sighs and moves to the couch next to me, collapsing into the cushions as if her legs have actually given out. 

“He’s been blowing through money for months, and I mean money. We’ve sunk billions into developing the technology for the fusion project. I’ve tried to stop him, to make him see reason. He just kept telling me that it didn’t matter how much we spent, once the prototype worked, it would pay for itself thousands of times over. But it doesn’t work, so we have nothing.” 

“What do you mean, ‘nothing’?” 

She lets her head fall in my direction. “GEH is barely solvent. We’re in trouble, Ana. Big trouble.” 

“Oh, god. Christian…” My voice is filled with pain. Ros nods, the movement echoing the hurt in my voice, then peels herself off the couch. 

“I gotta get back to work,” she says. “I’ll see you later.” 

I give her a weak smile and wave until she disappears into the foyer. Once she’s gone, I push away from the couch and make my way to Christian’s office. 

He doesn’t look up when I open the door. He’s completely absorbed in whatever is on his computer screen, his fingers flying over the keyboard. When I approach, he stops, looks up at me, and leans back in his chair. 

“Come here.”

I crawl into his lap and reach for his face so I can hold his gaze with some serious eye contact. “Not being able to overcome the impossible doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you human.” 

It takes him a long time to reply. 

“I don’t want to be human,” he says at last, the word at the end dripping with loathing. “I need to be more. So much more. I need to be a god. I need to have so much control over this world that it strikes fear in the hearts of those who hate me. I need to stand so far above the fruitlessly ambitious lowlives fighting over my scraps that they won’t even be able to see me well enough to be envious. I need to wield so much power that entire fucking nations will raise armies to stand between you and danger if that’s what I ask for. That is what this project was going to buy me, and I failed. I wasn’t good enough to make it happen.” 

“Don’t say that. Don’t even think that way. You’re Christian Grey. You’ve redefined entire industries, you’ve invented technologies that have revolutionized the way we connect with one another, you’ve brought infrastructure and opportunity to places where it didn’t exist before. This doesn’t take away from any of that success, Christian. You are a god.”

He just looks at me, stoic, considering me for a long, silent minute with impassive eyes. “Do you want to know the secret to my success, Anastasia?” 

“Devastatingly good looks?” 

He doesn’t laugh. His head tilts to the side, and furrows his brow. “It’s a feeling. That’s it. Whatever it is I’m working on, an acquisition, a sale, a new R&D project… I can do as much research and data analysis as I can possibly consume and it never matters. My decision always comes down to a feeling. A gut reaction. I don’t know how it works, but it’s never failed me. Never. But I felt in my bones that I was going to do this. That I was going to build this machine and change the entire course of the future. I still do…” 

His head falls back against his chair and for the first time, there’s a crack in his mask. He looks… lost. 

“They told you it was impossible,” I whisper. 

“My whole life has been people telling me everything I wanted to do was impossible and me proving them wrong. I thought this would be one more thing.” He goes silent again, reaching up to play with the ends of my hair. After a while though, his hands go still and his eyes shift up to mine. “If I couldn’t give you this anymore… the yachts, and the private planes, and the penthouses, and seaside mansions… would you still love me?” 

My heart feels like it freezes solid in my chest, then starts again with thick heavy thuds that hurt with every beat. 

“Christian…” I don’t even know how to continue on from that. How could he possibly even question that?” 

I sit up in his lap, moving my hands to either side of his face, and stare into his eyes. I try to pour everything into that contact, every ounce of the love I feel for him. I try to prove how unshakable that love is with the way I hold him. None of it is powerful enough to hold the weight of how I really feel about him. There’s only one way to express the sheer force of that love. So I lean down and kiss him. 

His lips are hesitant against mine at first, but as I fall deeper into the kiss, he tumbles after me. 

It isn’t the fiery kind of kiss I’d normally expect while straddling him in his office chair. His lips are soft against mine, his tongue undomineering. He doesn’t push for more or try to take control. Our mouths move together, in sync. Our breaths come in equal measure and our heartbeats match each other’s cadence. He moans when I slide my fingers into his hair so I can hold him to me, and each sweet pass of his lips makes me shiver with pleasure. 

I melt so deeply into that kiss that the hands that start pulling his clothes away from his body aren’t even controlled by me anymore. I untangle his tie while he pulls my shirt off of me and begins attacking my bra. I’m only half stripped, my panties merely swept hastily to the side, when his restraint breaks and he thrusts inside of me. 

I gasp, and then hurriedly reclaim his lips again. His hands go to my hips, pushing me down on him, holding me there while he’s buried as deep inside of me as he can reach. I moan, revelling in the fullness. Revelling in him. 

“I love you, Chrisitan,” I tell him, each word wrapped in the reverie flowing through my veins. 

He groans and starts to churn his hips. 

I move the way his hands direct me, slowly, in opposition to his own long, deep strokes. My skin heats and my insides grip him as the intensity of his eyes makes me tremble. I want to moan, but I don’t. I tell him that I love him. Over and over and over again. Every small whine, every pleading breath, every gasp… I choke it all back and tell him, “I love you,” in its place. 

It does something to him. 

His fingers dig into me, but not because he wants to mark me. Not to remind me who I belong to. He’s trying to find a way to get closer to me than he already is. The intensity of our kiss rages out of control, like flames spreading across an oil spill, but it’s not about uncontainable want. It’s like he’s suffocating and the only way he can draw breath is through me. Like I’m more important than breathing anyway. 

We writhe against one another, touching anything and everything we can get our hands on. When the first hint of my orgasm begins to blossom inside of me, he moves my hands from his chest and wraps them around him, pulling me flush against his skin. 

“I love you,” I whine, nearly at the edge. 

“Show me,” he whispers against my ear. “Come for me, baby.” 

I do, collapsing against him the moment it starts, unable to do anything but let the pleasure have me. The ‘I love yous’ bubble through my lips until I can’t form coherent words anymore. Then his lips are on mine and we lose ourselves again until he finds his own release inside of me. 

We come down panting, clinging to one another, staring deeply into each other’s eyes and reiterating everything that was just said between us without any words. He presses his forehead into mine, taking a deep breath as he reaches up and places the palm of his hand over my heart. 

“I’ll fix this,” he promises. “I don’t know how, but I’m not going to let it end this way. There’s still so much more I want to give you.”

“You gave me Calliope. You gave me a family. You gave me your heart. What more could possibly give me?”

He gives me a small smile, a gesture of appreciation, not conceit, and brushes a wisp of hair from my face. 

“The same thing I’ve promised you from the moment I fell in love with you. The world.” 

I cuddle into him, pressing my face to his skin and breathing him in, loving the faint trace of my own scent on him. I want to reassure him that he has nothing to prove to me, no debt to pay… but that’s not what he needs to hear right now. 

“I believe in you, Christian.”

His hands stop moving across my skin. His eyes, drinking in the sight of my naked breasts, close. I see his forehead crease, and then, he wraps me in his arms. 

“I love you, Anastasia,” he breathes into my hair. “So fucking much.” 

“I love you, too, Chrisitan. For better or worse.”

He nuzzles me. “As long as we both shall live.” 

Next Chapter

Chapter 26

It’s a slough to the airport the next morning. My eyes are heavy and my body is sore all over from our particularly relentless night of love making. When Christian takes my hand and pulls me from the car, it feels like I have to physically drag my body behind him to make it onto the plane. Even with his arm wrapped tightly around my body. I settle into a roomy seat, waiting for Christian to take the one next to me, and the moment I lie my head against his shoulder, I succumb to sleep.

He doesn’t seem phased by his own sleepless night. While I nuzzle his arm and unconsciously struggle to inch closer to him, he sits on his laptop and tries to get as much work done as possible without access to WiFi. For the first hour or so, his muttered curses and the clack of his keyboard leak into my vague and nebulous dreams. But by the time we’re soaring high over flyover country, he and the world around me disappears and I sink deeper and deeper into oblivion.

I can’t be certain how long I’ve been out when I’m jolted awake by a particularly intense bit of turbulence. The grogginess that consumes my mind and the cold leather covering the seat next to me suggest it’s been several hours, and yet I still feel like I could sleep several more. My eyes clamp more tightly closed together in protest and while I try desperately to tumble back into the blissful blackness, I hear muffled voices behind me. Christian has moved to sit with Ros, and it sounds like they’re arguing.

“We’re this fucking close,” he hisses.

“I don’t give a fuck where you are, Christian. We’re out of time.”

“No, the tax cuts will buy us time. We’ve got more time.”

“Weeks.” It’s a scoff. One I assume Christian dismisses because she doubles down. “It will buy us weeks, Christian.”

“And that’s all I need.” The statement is strained, as though he says it through gritted teeth, and she lets out an irritated huff.

“I don’t want to hear about it. Not once, all week. I need your focus here. If we don’t land this contract, we’re fucked. And I swear to god, Christian, I’ll walk.”

“No you won’t.”

“You wanna test me?”

“You’d walk away from GEH? From everything we’ve built?” 

“If the alternative is staying and watching you shatter it into a billion pieces, then abso-fucking-lutely.”

I know you’re not sleeping…

The voice comes from the opposite direction of Christian’s, and much closer that I’m prepared for. I jump and open my eyes, finding Taylor sitting in a seat across from me. He’s got one leg casually draped over the other and a thick, well-worn paperback in his hands. I give him a sheepish smile as I sit up, and he eyes me warily.

“You know what they say about eavesdroppers…”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping.”

“You sure?” He raises an eyebrow at me, and part of me thinks he’s teasing, while a much more nagging part is sure it’s an accusation. I frown and tilt my head as I turn a much more examining look on him.

“Why would I be eavesdropping on my husband?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. But there’s a lot I feel like I don’t know about you anymore, Ana. This business with Sawyer… it’s added all these new variables that I don’t really know how to prepare for. I don’t know what to expect from you anymore, and it has me very nervous about this week.”

A wave of cold moves over me, sending tiny pin pricks over my scalp. “Nervous?”

“Forgive me, Mrs. Grey, but you have a terrible track record in this city. I have one very simple and very clear directive. You first, no matter what. That means that I am going to be by your side around the clock for the next week, and since you’ll be spending your time following this author of yours around to all of his signings, Mr. Grey will be moving all over the damn city without any security.”

“What? What do you mean he won’t have security?!”

“Do you see anyone else here?” He gestures to the empty seats around us, and as I glance between them and back to him, I start to feel a little like I’m on the receiving end of a textbook Raymond Steele lecture. The reason there isn’t anyone else in those seats is because Christian fired Woods after my last trip to New York, and no one else has made it through Taylor’s new rigorous vetting process to take his place. Rumor has it, no one really wants the job. Who, after all, would want to stake their professional and financial future on a position that every other person who has ever filled it has proved to be only temporary? Even Luke.

Because of me.

That realization, coupled with the knowledge that it’s going to leave Christian without his right hand man in the place where misfortune seems to seek us out, seems to add a whole extra layer to the grime I feel all over when I think about the choices that got me here.  

“I’m sorry, Taylor. I wasn’t trying to make your job harder, I was—” The excuse stops dead before I can even make it, so I change direction. “If it helps, I could talk to Christian about Woods and…”

“Woods has been reassigned,” he interrupts. “We’ll find someone to take his place, but in the meantime… no more surprises, huh?”

I nod, slumping slightly in my seat, and he gives me a small smile before looking back at his book and turning the page.

We touch down in New York late in the afternoon. The moment the wheels of the plane bounce against the runway, Christian and I both fish out our phones to get caught up on everything we missed during the long flight. I ignore the work-related notifications first to respond to a picture Kate sent me of Calliope and Kennedy on a blanket in her living room. Calliope has her arms wrapped around the baby, her lips mashed against Kennedy’s cheek.

“No…” Christian breathes from the seat next to me, his voice filled with dread and disbelief.

“What?” Ros asks, looking up at him in alarm. 

He doesn’t respond. He gets out of his seat, pulls his phone to his ear, and walks toward the back of the plane muttering, “fuck, fuck, fuck…” Ros gets up to follow, and I stare after them, worried.

“Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says. He waves toward the door, which Natalia has just popped open. “Your car is waiting.”

I nod and lead the way off the plane, frowning when I see the two sleek town cars waiting for us. I’m on my way to the hotel, apparently Christian isn’t.

Taylor collects my bags and loads them into the waiting car while I dawdle and wait for my husband to deboard. But, when he finally emerges from the plane, he’s so busy shouting into his phone that he doesn’t even glance in my direction. Ros follows him so closely she could be his shadow. A very angry shadow.

What the hell is going on?

“Mrs. Grey?” The low sound of shifting metal sounds behind me as Taylor opens my door. I hesitate with one last look at Christian’s car, which is slowly pulling away from me, before I step inside. Taylor ducks in behind me, and for the duration of the drive into the city, I listen to him talk about the book he’d finished on the plane. The excitement I hear through the plot twists he describes in excruciating detail sends a frisson of nerves through me. In just a few short hours, The Black Rose will officially be released to the public, and I can’t really be confident anyone would give it the kind of glowing review Taylor is giving me now.

The nerves remain palpable the entire way to the hotel. Enough so that I don’t even really get the chance to enjoy the roomy suite Andrea has booked for us, or the breathtaking view of the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River. Instead, I order takeout and start pouring through pre-order reports, verifying and re-verifying a week’s worth of itineraries, and sending countless emails to promoters and even a few critics I know from my Escape experience. 

The reports I pull only seem to further set me on edge. We’ve still only pushed 2800 copies, even three weeks after we made the announcement. The last report I have of Steven’s latest release shows that he’s moved over 11,000 copies in nearly the same amount of time. That should probably leave a bitter taste in my mouth, since Stevens has had it out for me since the day I started, but it doesn’t. Right now, he and Jacki are saving my ass.

It’s past eleven when I’m finally pulled from my work by the musical chime of my phone. I glance over at it and smile as I swipe a finger across the green button. Kate’s smiling face pops up on my screen. 

“Hey!” I answer, holding my phone up so she’ll be able to see me, too. She waves, then points her screen to Calliope, and I immediately brighten. “Hi, baby girl!” 

Calliope looks up at Kate. “Mama?” 

Kate smiles and tries to get her to look back at the phone. “Yeah, that’s Mama. Can you say ‘hi’?”

“Hi.” She says it to Kate, but I smile anyway. 

“How has she been?” 

“Oh, fine. She spent the whole day following Elliot around. He’s been calling her his groupie.”

I laugh, and the sound catches Calliope’s attention.

“Mama?”

“Yeah, Mama is right there, Callie. You can talk to her.”

Calliope looks where Kate points, but I’m not sure she understands the picture on this screen is actually me and not just an old video. 

“She ready yet?” I hear Elliot ask off screen. Kate nods, adjusting Calliope in her lap, and trying one last time to get her to pay attention to me.

“Say, ‘night-night, Mama’.”

Calliope blinks, then disappears from view as Elliot scoops her into his arms. I call goodnight to her and hear his voice respond, high-pitched like he’s trying to imitate my daughter.

Goodnight, Mommy. Tell my dad that Uncle Elliot is going to get my nose pierced.”

I roll my eyes and Kate lets her head fall back on the couch. She looks wiped out. “I need to pump. Is it weird to do that on the phone?”

“Only if you’ve suddenly grown averse to me seeing your boobs.”

She laughs, then shrugs and reaches for her pump.

The next morning, I’m up before Christian so that I can hit all the news stands on the way to the office. When I finally stumble out of the elevator, my arms are loaded with the newspapers and magazines that may hold the fate of Greenwich Small Press within their pages.

“Finally,” Scott barks as he pulls The New York Times off the top of the pile still in my arms. Taylor gives him a warning glare, but says nothing. Instead, he lays the papers he’s carrying down on the desk and turns to face me.

“Can I get anything for you, Mrs. Grey?”

I glance around him at Walter Daves, who is sitting on a couch pushed against the far wall, looking green.

“Would you mind getting coffee?” I ask. “I think we’re in for a long morning.”

“Yes, ma’am. Right away.” Taylor leaves the office, and I look over at Scott. He’s reading the page open in front of him with so much intensity, I’m surprised the paper hasn’t caught fire.

He shakes his head and tosses the paper aside, reaching for and tearing through the next one. And the next one. And the next. The expression on his face doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what he’s found within the pages of the publications he so callously tosses aside. It leaves Walter completely pale, waiting for anything. Scott stays quiet. I reach for the discarded paper and start to read.

It’s not good. The same words I’ve thought over and over again pop out at me in black and white.

Convoluted.

Contrived.

Cliche.

Each negative review makes my gut clench with pain for Walter, and there are a lot of negative reviews.

“No, no, no!” Scott roars, ripping the magazine in his hands in half. “This has to be a mistake!”

I shake my head, reading for myself again just how much of a mistake it isn’t. The response is ubiquitous throughout every review I read and Walter’s face is white with horror. As I finally force myself to stop looking at the horrible things they’ve written about my author and finally just put the papers aside, I find myself desperately wracking my brain for something to reassure him, but I can’t think of a single thing.

My phone rings before I have to say anything.

“Excuse me,” I tell them, then step out into the hallway to take the call. “This is Anastasia Grey.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. This is Damon Arnette from Barnes and Noble. We have several book signings scheduled at a few of our Manhattan locations this week with your author, Walter Daves. Seattle next week.”

“Yes, Mr. Arnette. What can I do for you?”

“I’m afraid I’m calling with some bad news. The customer response hasn’t been as enthusiastic as we had hoped. We’ve made the decision to cancel.”

He saw the reviews.

“Cancel? But his novel is being released today. We haven’t even seen the consumer response yet.” 

He doesn’t care. Whether he’s looking at the reviews or if his own sales reports, nothing I say encourages him to budge. We argue for several minutes, but I never get anywhere.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” he says, once he’s clearly tired of our back and forth. “Please, pass our apologies on to your client.”

“Yeah.” I hang up, feeling a crushing sense of defeat. The book stores haven’t even had a chance to open yet, and this release is already a disaster. 

My very first release.

I walk back toward Scott’s office, but out of the corner of my eye, in the dark stairwell, I see Walter sitting by himself. Taking a deep, bracing breath, I make my way over to him.

“Mind if I sit?” I ask, eyeing the empty half of the bottom step.

“Sure,” he croaks back. I lower myself down and sit in silence with him, unsure of how to best provide this man comfort.

“Who was the call from?” he begins instead. “Was it about me?”

I nod. “It was Barnes and Noble. They cancelled your signing.”

“The one tomorrow?”

“All of them.”

He lets out a disappointed sigh and his head falls into his hands. “I think I might have just ended my entire career.”

He looks broken. Defeated. It makes me remember the months of rejection I endured last year. How painful it was to have someone tell you over and over again that the work you poured your soul into wasn’t good enough. I can feel that pain through the defeated droop in his shoulders, and it makes me experience the failure of this release so much more personally.

I didn’t just fail Carmen and Scott, I failed Walter.

“Have you ever heard of Across the River and into the Trees?” I ask.

“No.”

“It was written by Hemingway, and it was garbage. Dry. Overly simplistic. The critics panned it, and it flopped spectacularly. But, two years later, he released The Old Man and the Sea and he was right back on top again.”

“Really?”

“Really. One bad release isn’t the end of your career. It’s just… an opportunity for you to grow.”

“You read that garbage I just put out. You really think I have it in me to grow?

He says it as though he thinks he doesn’t, but I nod. “I do. Look, I let you down, Walter. It’s my job to advocate for you, and I didn’t do that. I let them push ahead a book that wasn’t ready instead of protecting your work. I’m sorry.”

He looks at me for a long time, then shakes his head. “It’s not your fault, Ana. You made what I gave you better. You, at least, gave me a fighting chance.”

“It is my fault, but I promise you, I won’t let you down again. I’m going to push you. You have another best seller in you, together we’re going to get it out.”

He smiles. “Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t thank me yet. You might be about to hate me.” I laugh, then get to my feet. “Why don’t you head back to the hotel, and take the day to lick your wounds? You can get back to work tomorrow.”

He agrees, standing up and staring back at me with a new determination in his eyes.

“And you better make it outstanding,” I warn him. “Because I’m going to absolutely rip it apart.”

He smiles. “Good. Thank you, Ana. Thank you… for believing in me.”

I wrap my arms around him, hugging him lightly before he turns and heads down the stairs. I watch him go, then start back for Scott’s office. I’m stopped though, by Carmen, who is hovering in the archway between the stairwell and the office floor. She doesn’t look happy, and I can only assume it’s because the rolled-up sheet of paper in her hand is the updated numbers for The Black Rose.

“Ana, can I speak with you in Scott’s office, please?”

“Yes,” I reply. She turns, expecting me to follow her, and I do. I trail behind her, full of apprehension, all the way through Scott’s door, and trying not to flinch when I hear it close behind me.

“What the hell is this?” she demands. “3000 copies? You promised me 20,000.”

“I know. It’s just… not resonating with our audience the way we hoped it would.” It’s a half-hearted offer of explanation. I know we don’t have any real excuse. We made a bad gamble and we got a bad outcome.

“And why not?” Carmen asks.

“The marketing,” Scott answers. “Anastasia made the decision not to use any Stormy Nights promotional materials, and we failed to pull in any of Daves’ previous base. If we would have done as I suggested, these numbers would be much higher.”

I narrow my eyes. Way to throw me under the bus, Scott.

“That wouldn’t make a difference,” I argue. “I’ve said this before. The answer wasn’t tricking a bunch of teenage girls looking for a high school romance into buying a graphic murder novel.”

“Then what was the answer, Anastasia? You have all the answers. Please come down from the mountain tops and enlighten us all. What should we have done?” Scott’s eyes blaze like the afterburn of cheap tequila.

“If I remember correctly,” Carmen interjects. “Ana didn’t have faith in this title from the beginning. She argued several times that The Black Rose wasn’t ready for publication.”

Scott’s eyes widen, fearfully. “Well, yeah… but—”

“Anastasia,” Carmen continues, cutting off Scott’s defense. “If Scott hadn’t been in your way, what would you have done differently?” 

“I would have sent Walter his manuscript back and told him it was too complicated. I would have asked him to edit at least twenty, maybe thirty thousand total words out of his draft and send it back to me once he’d pieced it back together. I would have signed Hailey Lewis instead, and we’d be talking about Phoenix right now.”

She nods once, then turns back to Scott. “Scott, you’re fired. You have until the end of the day to clean out your things.”

“But… Carmen!”

She doesn’t look in his direction, despite the arguments bubbling through his lips. “Ana, walk with me.”

I follow her out of the office, trying to ignore Scott’s indignant shouts behind us with the same impassivity Carmen does.

“I’m going to be straight with you, Ana,” she says as she reaches out for the button to call the elevator. “The financials between the two GSP branches aren’t good. Publishing is just a sideline for me, one I have no reason to keep if it isn’t going to be profitable.”

“Our pipeline is looking stronger,” I say quickly. “Two of my fiction editors are representing titles well on their way to becoming best sellers. Jacki’s might even already be there—”

The doors slide open and Carmen steps inside, the perfectly polished fingertips on her right-hand curling around the door to keep it from closing again.

“I won’t close GSP down, yet, but I’m not going to replace Scott. You’ll have to float both branches until you can prove to me they’re viable. I’ll give you one more release to turn it around and show me you really are what everyone claims you to be. One release that will move at least 50,000 copies. Just one.

50,000? But, Carmen…”

She steps further into the elevator, pushes her finger into the button for her floor, and the doors close without another word. I stand there, gaping, unsure of what to do or even think.

Both branches?

50,000 copies?

One release?

Fuck!

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn and find Taylor standing behind me, looking wary. “What’s going on with Wallace?”

Scott’s shouts of rage are echoing through the office, incoherent through the cursing and the constantly shifting blame. There’s a crash, and I wince.

“Carmen fired him.”

Taylor nods. “Well, he doesn’t seem to be taking it well. If you can work remotely, I think it’s best we return to the hotel. You seem to be the target of some of his more… colorful expletives.”

Should I? The curious eyes of the employees that keep shifting their eyes to his office are my responsibility now. They’ll want answers. To know if their job is safe. To know there’s a plan.

What the fuck am I going to tell them?

“Just a moment, Taylor.” I make my way to the center of the floor and call for everyone’s attention.

“Hi.” It’s a lame start, but I’m nervous. “If I haven’t met you yet, my name is Anastasia Grey and… and I’m going to be leading this branch moving forward. There are going to be some changes and probably some rough waters ahead, so I’d like to give you some time to think of any questions or concerns you may have for me, and we’ll meet back here at nine tomorrow morning to discuss. I’ll have a strategy for where we go from here that we’ll talk about then. For right now… take the rest of the day. I think we’re all going to need to regroup.”

I’m met with looks of confusion and disbelief, but once one employee begins to gather his things and I don’t stop him, everyone follows suit. Now I just need to come up with the brilliant strategy I’ve promised them.

Twenty-four hours is enough time to accomplish that, right?  

I let myself panic over the position I now find myself in for the entire drive back to the hotel. I’d been prepared for my own job to be on the line, but I hadn’t imagined we were one release away from both branches being dissolved. With the livelihoods of twenty-three people hanging over my head, the stress of what Carmen just asked me to do is all too real. How am I, a tiny little publisher tucked all the way up in the pacific northwest, going to attract the kind of title that would debut at 50,000 pre-orders? It takes name recognition and clout to pull off that kind of release, and I just sent my best author crawling away with his tail between his legs. I’m not even positive my press could handle that kind of release.

I spend the afternoon drafting and redrafting my plan, setting goals, creating metrics… In some ways it feels like I’m starting over. And while that feels daunting, I’m also a little relieved. There won’t be a Scott to go over my head anymore, and with real control, I might have a shot at fixing this mess.

One shot.

Once again, I work until I’m pulled from my laptop by the phone ringing on the table next to me. A great sense of relief moves through me this time when I see Christian’s name on the screen.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” He doesn’t sound as happy to hear from me as I am to hear from him, though I have a feeling that actually has very little to do with me.

“Bad day?”

“Something like that… How about you? How was your release?”

“It was a disaster. The critics hated it, no one bought it, and Carmen fired Scott.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Apparently, she’s ready to close down GSP altogether, so she’s decided not to replace him. It’s just going to be me going forward.”

He snorts. “Did you ask for a raise?”

“I don’t think that would have been productive. I’m worried about my people’s jobs, Christian.”

“Yeah,” he replies as though he understands completely. “Are you hungry?”

I look out the window behind me, surprised by how dark it is. “Uh, yeah. Do you mind if we order room service, though? I’ve really gotta focus here.”

“Whatever you want, baby.” There’s a heaviness in the sweet words that dampens them a little.

“Are you okay?” 

He sighs. “Yeah. Just… a really shitty day.”

“Okay. I’ll see you soon?”

“Yeah. I texted Taylor to come get me cause I can’t sit in the car with Ros right now. Don’t leave the room, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.” With a click, he’s gone and I frown down at the blank screen of my phone. I thought winning the tax battle against his dad would have him in better spirits, but he’s worse today than he was last week. Is it because of the fusion project, or is New York not going the way he planned? I don’t know, but the way he sounded on the phone makes me feel like I need to find out.

My eyes move to my laptop again. I’ve got direction and a solid start on the proposal I’m writing up, and even though I hate to lose any momentum right now, I decide to put it away for a few hours so I can devote all of my attention to Christian.

After today, I kind of think we both might need it.

Using the hotel phone, I dial down to the front desk and order room service, complete with their best sauvignon blanc. Then, I slip into the bathroom to freshen up and change into something much less comfortable. Christian and I are here for a week, a whole week without Calliope, so I made sure to pack some of my sluttiest lingerie. I just hadn’t expected to need it so soon…

When I hear the knock on the door, I slide into one of the soft, fluffy robes provided by the hotel, grab some cash from my wallet for a tip, and answer it.

It isn’t room service waiting for me. It’s Scott.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, stepping further back into my room so I can close the door a little more.

“Can we talk?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Scott.”

His shoulders fall. “Ana, you’ve gotta help me save my job. I have a wife… We have a mortgage.”

“I don’t know.”

“Look, I think I figured it out. I think I know how to save both of our branches.”

That piques my interest since I’ve spent the entire day trying to do just that. I have a plan, but not one that would make me sound as confident as Scott does now. Honestly, I couldn’t even sound hopeful.

“Alright, come in,” I say, stepping to the side and opening the door. He does, then hovers until I invite him to sit in the living room I’ve turned into an office. I sit across from him and motion for him to begin. “What is it?”

“What it is, is a dog eat dog world, Anastasia. This industry used to be so different. I don’t even recognize it anymore. A publishing house can’t even stay afloat unless they’re constantly, constantly, constantly turning out content.”

“I think that’s a problem with your model, Scott. Not the industry.”

He doesn’t seem to hear me. He looks at me like he’s looking through me. “The answer was in front of us the whole time. You and I arguing over Phoenix and The Black Rose. Over 10,000 units. 20,000 units…” He shakes his head. “The answer was already in our hands.”

“What do you mean?”

You. Your numbers were phenomenal, and you have an unpublished manuscript right now.”

My mouth goes dry. “No.”

“Ana, the sales from a release like that would keep Greenwich viable for years. Your entire team, my entire team, all of them… secure. Think of what you could build in the time that release would buy you.”

“No.” My response is automatic. Final. It makes Scott go rigid.

“This would save my job, Anastasia. My livelihood.”

I shake my head. “Greenwich couldn’t even handle one of my releases. Jacki pushed our presses to the limit with a 10,000 copy print. Escape sold over a million copies.”

“So what, you’re too good for us? Anastasia Grey and her guaranteed best-seller is just too big, too important for Greenwich Small Press?”

“I’m being realistic, Scott.”

“You’re being a bitch.”

My mouth snaps shut and I get to my feet. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I came here for your manuscript, Anastasia. I’m not leaving without it.”

Fuck.

Taylor isn’t here and there isn’t anyone else. What do I do?

Christian.

My phone is on the table between us, so I reach down to grab it. My fingers curl around the glass and metal only half a second before his do. Quickly, I jerk it out of the way. He dives at me and knocks me into the couch.

“Scott!” I scream in defiance as he wrestles my phone away from me. He tosses it across the room, far out of my reach, and smiles down at me in a ridiculing way that makes goosebumps rise to the surface of my skin. A brief memory of Lincoln, holding me down just like this, flashes across my eyes, and I start to thrash violently beneath him. It only makes him hold me tighter.

“Careful how you scream my name, sweetheart. I might just get turned on.”

“Get off of me!”

“Where is the fucking manuscript, Anastasia? On your laptop over there?”

His hands secure both of my wrists, holding me in place the same way Christian has thousands of times. But he doesn’t have Christian’s strength, and if there’s one thing loving a semi-sadistic dom has taught me, it’s how to effectively struggle.

I twist my wrists in exactly the right way to loosen his grip just long enough to yank out of his hold. Then it’s a reckless shove, using all of my body weight, and he too loses balance off the top of me and falls to the floor. I’m up in the next second, sprinting to the bedroom where there’s a door that locks.

He grabs me around the ankle, sending me flying to the floor before I get there. Then he’s on me again, our arms and legs tangled together and battering against each other while he tries to subdue me and I try desperately to get away.

“Stop fighting me!” he shouts, angry now. “Just give me the fucking manuscript!”

“Get the fuck away from me!” I squirm out of his hold just long enough to move a couple more feet, but he grabs hold of the belt on my robe and the whole thing comes unraveled.

“Well, well, well,” he says, smiling down at me when he sees the lingerie. “What have we here?”

“Let me go,” I whine. His grip is tighter now, painful, and I can’t break it.

“Oh no, baby doll. If you don’t want to give me what I want, maybe I’m just going to have to take it. Maybe I’ll just take whatever the fuck I want.” He bends down, nuzzling my breast through the sheer fabric that exposes everything, then moans as he shifts his weight on top of me. I see him reach for his belt. 

“No, wait!” I try to pull away, but I can’t. He laughs.

“Shut up, slut. You might just enjoy this.”

And then he’s gone.

His weight lifts from me all at once as he’s sent flying back into the wall so hard that it folds around him. My husband stands over him looking livid, murder in his eyes. Scott falls to a heap on the floor and Christian leaps on top of him. I watch him raise his fist high into the air and bring it down across Scott’s jaw with a sickening crunch.

“Taylor!” I scream. The door is still open from Christian’s arrival and Taylor’s room is just across the hall. Three more times I call for him, and Christian lands three more punches. Thankfully, I hear the distant ping of the elevator and when I call for help, our head of security runs into the room.

It’s a struggle, but he’s able to get Christian off Scott. Still, the separation doesn’t seem to quench his violent rampage. I have to get in the way for him to stop charging at Scott. His chest heaves, his body shakes, and his eyes are filled with bloodlust.

“He was assaulting her,” he snarls at Taylor. “Deal with it.”

“Yes, sir.” Taylor nods emphatically, then drags Scott from the room. I stare at the blood staining the carpet, then start stumbling to Christian. He holds up a hand to stop me.

“Not yet.” I freeze and watch him take a deep, calming breath before he continues. “Are you okay?”

I blink at him. “Are you?”

Clearly, he’s not. His entire body is stiff with rage. His hands are bloody. He looks insane.

He shakes his head slowly. “How did he get in here?”

“I let him in.”

“You let him in?”

I swallow, cowering slightly under the anger leaking into his voice. “He asked me to help him save his job. He said he knew how to save both our branches. I let him in to hear him out and he said he wanted my manuscript. My manuscript. For Greenwich. I said no, he called me a bitch, and then… he attacked me.”

“I’ll fucking kill him.” Christian turns for the door, but I throw myself in his way.

“Please don’t.”

Not an ounce of the tension seizing his whole body eases, so I move to wrap him in my arms. Again, he stops me.

Not. Yet.”

I take a step back and meet his eyes with mine instead. “I’m okay, Christian. He didn’t touch me.”

“I saw him touching you.” He leaves me with those cold words and stalks into the bedroom. It’s best to give him a few minutes to calm down, I think, so I wait for the room service I ordered to actually arrive before I go and track him down. He’s in the shower, his back to me. Bruised and cut hands press into the wall. His head hangs beneath the water.

I go to him, but keep the glass between us.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “It was stupid for me to let him in.”

“Don’t apologize.” He still doesn’t turn to face me. “You’re trying to take care of your people. That can make you desperate and… irrational.”

There’s that tone again. Like what he’s telling me is more than just an appeal to empathy. Like he’s fighting the same battle I am.

“Is everything okay, Christian? Did something go wrong in your meeting this afternoon?”

He shakes his head, but I can’t tell if it’s an answer or an expression of just how badly things really went. I drop my robe, open the shower, and step inside, still dressed in my lingerie. This time he doesn’t stop me when I try to wrap myself around him. He actually relaxes a small degree when I finally do.

“Tell me what happened?” I press him. Slowly, he turns to face me.

“Ana… I think I’ve really fucked up.”

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