Chapter 33

This time, when the sun comes up, Christian is wrapped all the way around me. It’s how we’d fallen asleep, and neither one of us moved an inch away from the other all night. Even now, when I need to get up and check on the sick baby I’d put to bed the night before, I’m struggling to wiggle out of his embrace. Instead, I squeeze the arm he has draped over the top of me and push ever so gently back into him. I’d meant it as the best I’m-getting-up-but-I wish-I-wasn’t hug I could manage, hoping that I wouldn’t wake him. I do, though, and his arms immediately pull and hold me tight against his solid form. 

“No, actually I think you’re perfect right where you are,” he says, his voice still hoarse with sleep. I hum in agreement. 

“I know, but I need to get up.” I push away again, but he offers no slack in his hold, so I don’t go anywhere. I smile at his persistence, feeling more wanted and cherished than I have all week. It makes it difficult to continue protesting with any kind of conviction. “Christian, let me go.” 

“Never.” He rolls on top of me, stretching his body over mine and using his weight to hold me in place. “Don’t go to work today.” 

“I’m in the middle of a gigantic project with very tight deadlines, I have to go to work today.” 

“I know exactly where you are in that project and your app is nowhere near ready for testing phases. Anything else you have to do, you can do from home. Stay with me.” 

I roll my eyes. “Coming from the man who has literally been sleeping at work for the last week.” 

“Exactly, I’ve earned a day off and the only thing I want with that time is to spend it with you.” He leans down and nuzzles my nose. “Let’s get on my plane and get out of town for a few days. We could go meet up with Mia in Prague and spend the weekend with her. Or we could go somewhere with a beach. Maybe… Bermuda? Bahama?” He starts to sing softly. “Come on, pretty mama.” 

I laugh. “And what about your daughter?” 

“My daughter would have a fabulous time in Kokomo.”

“Except that she’s sick.” 

The enticing smile he’s using against me disappears in an instant. “What do you mean, ‘she’s sick’?”

“I had to pull her out of daycare yesterday because she had a fever. The nurse at her pediatrician’s office said to give it a day and see if it went down, and if not to bring her in.” 

He leaps out of bed, scooping up the suit pants he’d carelessly discarded on the floor the night before, and pulling them on while he rushes through the door. I try to remind him to take the thermometer with him, but he’s already gone. With a sigh, I climb out of bed to retrieve it myself before I join him. 

He’s speaking in a gentle voice when I walk into Calliope’s room, too low for me to make out the words. I watch him lift our daughter from her crib like she’s a wounded puppy. She curls around him, making the most pitiful sounds as he cuddles her and starts to sway. 

“Owie, Daddy,” she whines. 

“Come here, Calli-lilly,” I say, moving around Christian so I can swipe the thermometer across her forehead. It beeps almost immediately and my heart sinks. 101.2. She’s worse than yesterday. “Well, it looks like you’re going to get your wish. I’m going to have to take her to the doctor, so there’s no way I’m going into work today.” 

He nods and brushes his hand softly over Calliope’s curls. “I’ll call Dr. Robinson if you’ll get her ready?” 

I’m so used to doing absolutely everything on my own that his offer comes as a shock. “Oh, great! Thank you.” 

He passes Calliope to me gingerly, then places a quick kiss against my lips before he darts from the room. Calliope starts to cry the moment her daddy isn’t in her sights anymore, so I sing to her while I get her dressed. To my complete and utter shock, it works. She stops mid-wail, tears still rolling down her cheeks, and stares at me. Either her fever is making her hallucinate or The Beach Boys might actually be the cure for all ailes in life.

Once she and I are ready, we head downstairs to find her dad. He’s in the kitchen talking with Luke and Taylor. 

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says with a nod. He turns away but Luke hangs awkwardly behind, looking as though he’s holding back from saying something. 

“Was I unclear, Sawyer?” Christian asks. 

“No, I just… If she’s not going into work and you’re going to be home all day… Can I… Could I take the day off?” 

Christian raises an eyebrow at him. “You want a day off? You’ve never asked me for a day off in the entire time you’ve worked for me.” 

“Yeah well, we were up late drinking last night and… uh, I hung out with Calliope all day yesterday. If she’s sick, I should probably…” he pauses, unsure of his next words. “Take it easy?”

Christian eyes him suspiciously, but nods. “Sure. Since I don’t intend to let Ana out of my sight, take the day.” 

“Thanks, Grey.” Luke turns to me. “I’m going to get a hotel room, so I’ll see you in the morning?” 

“You’re getting a hotel room?” 

“Yeah. You know, there’s… contamination here, or whatever.” 

I narrow my eyes at him. “What’s going on, Luke?” 

“Nothing,” he says, but it’s the same tone he uses when he says ‘I don’t want to talk about it, Ana,’ which immediately tells me that  whatever this is, it’s about Jade. He walks out of the kitchen. I pass Calliope to Christian and go after him. 

“Luke!” 

He stops and turns to face me, folding his hands behind his back and giving me a passive look. “Yes, Mrs. Grey?” 

“Don’t Mrs. Grey me, and don’t act like I don’t know you well enough to know you’re not getting a hotel room to avoid Calliope’s germs.” 

He laughs. “Brilliant work, detective.” 

Oh yeah, if he’s being this evasive, it’s definitely about Jade. I just need to make him say it. 

“Why don’t you want to stay here tonight, Luke?” 

“Because Taylor has very strict rules about staff bringing random girls back to your house for the night and I don’t plan on adding a request for a background check to my seduction technique.”

The excitement boiling inside of me fizzles out in an instant. He’s not going to see her. He’s just in the grief stage where he wants to fuck anything with two legs.

For all his talk about not being Kate, they’re exactly the same person. 

“Luke… that’s not going to make any of this easier. Don’t you remember what you said to me when Christian and I were broken up and I was dealing with it by partying four nights a week?”

He snorts. “Four nights a week? Really trying to rewrite history here, aren’t you?” 

I narrow my eyes at him. “You can’t lose her by losing yourself, and that’s not the guy you are.”

“Well maybe I’m not ready to lose her.” He turns around and walks through the living room and down the hallway that leads to the staff quarters at the back of the house. I want to go after him, but Christian’s already packing up to go.

“Ready, baby?” he asks. 

“Yeah.” I take Calliope, then grasp his hand and let him tug us both out to the garage. Once again, Calliope lies limply in her carseat, looking miserable. She doesn’t say anything, or make any noises at all really as we head out to the freeway. It makes me wish I’d sat in the back with her again. I reach back to hold her hand and the car is suddenly filled with the sounds of an incoming phone call. Christian pushes a finger into the bluetooth. 

“Ros.” 

“Good morning, you brilliant, magnificent, always right when I am wrong, titan amongst mere mortal men… uh… look I’m really bad at grovelling. Can you just accept that that’s what I’m trying to do here so we can move on?” 

Christian laughs. “But I was enjoying it.” 

She groans. “You were right, okay? I’m sorry that I doubted you.” 

“Thank you, but I actually didn’t ask you to call so I could say, ‘I told you so.’ I’m going to have Jacquline release a statement about the fusion project this afternoon and I expect there will be a good deal of press about it over the next few days. I think that’s a good opportunity to re-evaluate our prospects with Gutierrez in Texas.”

“He signed with Gallagher, Christian.” 

“And once I make a phone call to the Department of Financial Services in New York, Gallagher Corporation is going to be in serious danger of losing their telecom licensing. Guitierrez is about to find himself looking for a licensed fiber optics contractor, and I think the media coverage GEH is about to enjoy might just draw his attention.” 

“I guess I could send him some of our updated numbers… I don’t know, it kind of feels like a dirty move, don’t you think? Gallagher isn’t going to just take this lying down.” 

“It is a dirty move. And it’s only my first. If Gallagher has a problem with what’s about to happen, she should have been a little more respectful when she had the opportunity. Get me Gutierrez, Ros. No excuses.” 

“Alright, I’ll reach out to his office and let you know what he says.” 

“Good. Tomorrow, though. I’m unavailable for the rest of the day.” He hangs up the phone and glances back in the mirror, though I think he’s looking at Calliope instead of the traffic. 

“What was that?” I ask. 

“A statement,” he replies easily. “One every person who tried to come for me is about to hear loud and clear.” 

I feel a strong sense of trepidation brewing in my gut, but before I can figure out how to voice my concerns, a more pressing one presents itself. 

“Where are you going?” 

Christian signals, then takes an exit off the freeway he shouldn’t take if he’s trying to get to Calliope’s pediatrician’s office. 

“Dr. Robinson’s office said they couldn’t see her until three,” Christian says, turning again, and now I know exactly where he’s heading. “So I called my mom.” 

A few minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Seattle Children’s Hospital. I stare at the imposing stone and glass structure and shake my head. “Calliope has a fever, Christian. Your mother is a pediatric surgeon. This place is for children with cancer. Don’t you think this is a little overkill?” 

“Do I ever think anything is overkill?”

“Your mother’s time is valuable.”

“Then it’s a good thing she values Calliope more than her time.”

He gets out of the car and pulls Calliope out of her carseat. I follow him through the automatic doors into the sterile reception area, but we bypass the desk. He walks straight to the surgery floor, then turns a charming smile on the young woman sitting at the nurses station. 

“I’m looking for Dr. Trevelyan-Grey.”

She blinks up at him and flushes a deep scarlet. “Yes, Mr. Grey. She’s expecting you. If you want to take Calliope down to room 201, I’ll have her meet you there.”

“Thank you.” Taking my hand once more, we make our way to the room she mentioned, flip on the lights, and close ourselves inside. Christian takes the chair in the corner. I perch on the exam table, holding Calliope in my lap. 

Both of us use the time to scroll through our emails. I even reply to a less than thrilled one from Carmen, which is a response to the message I sent letting her know I’d be out again today. She seems less confident than Christian was that I’ll be effective working from home. 

“Good morning,” Grace says, sweeping through the door dressed in a white coat and sporting a huge smile on her face. Her eyes immediately zero in on Calliope, and, as she sees the sad look in her eyes and the pink in her cheeks, she gives an overdramatized look of compassion. “My poor baby, do you not feel good?”

 Calliope recedes into me instead of responding. Grace nods and sets about the room, collecting what she needs to take Callie’s vitals. She’s sluggish, so it’s difficult to get her to cooperate with anything. Grace has to check her nose and throat over my shoulder. 

“Oh, I think we’ve found the problem,” she says when she places the tip of her scope into Calliope’s ear and she immediately screams and jerks away. I offer her soothing words, promising her Gigi isn’t going to hurt her. Grace peers through the device into my baby’s ear. “Yeah, she’s got a lot of fluid build up. I’ll take a swab and run it down to the lab, but I think it’s probable that she’s got a middle ear infection.”

“Oh, Calli-Lilly,” I pout, cuddling her close to me. 

“What does that mean for her?” Christian asks. 

“Well, she’s probably in some pain, so I’d get her some baby Tylenol. That’ll also help with her fever. But other than that, it should clear up on its own in a few days.”

“What?” Christian snaps. “Clear up on its own? She has an infection! Don’t you think she needs… antibiotics or something?”

“No, the fluid will drain in a few days and it’ll take the infection with it. If it doesn’t, then we have a bigger problem and we’ll probably have to put in some drainage tubes, but let’s not worry about that until it happens.”

“So you’re telling me that my daughter has a middle ear infection and the best you’re going to give me is, ‘give her baby aspirin’?”

“Tylenol,” Grace corrects him. “She needs acetaminophen for her fever, there’s no acetaminophen in aspirin.”

“The medical professionals in this town, I swear to God.”

“Christian, this is good news,” I tell him. “It means she’s not as sick as we thought.” He’s grumbling to himself, ignoring me. I turn to Grace. “Thank you. I’m sorry we interrupted your day for this.”

“Oh, it is a terrible imposition. But you could pay me back by giving me another grandchild who will get sick and interrupt another one of my very important days.” She smiles, but Christian gives her a severe look. 

“That’s not going to happen.”

Grace frowns at him. “Then I’ll send you my bill.”

“Good.” Chrisitan kisses his mother’s cheeks, then takes Calliope from me, giving her a look that says he’s sorry no one is taking her debilitating disease as seriously as he is. We wait for about 15 minutes until the lab results come back confirming Calliope’s ear infection, then collect the prescription Grace had written out and given to her MA that just says ‘baby TYLENOL’ on it. Christian crumples it in his fist, but puts it in his pocket instead of throwing it away. 

He insists that we stop by a pharmacy on the way home, despite the fact that I have plenty of baby Tylenol at the house. Then he corners a pharmacist and spends five minutes having a serious discussion about the best way to dispense the medicine, dissolvable tablets or a liquid. 

We end up with both. 

Once we get home, Christian immediately gets to work setting things up for Calliope. He makes her a little bed made of blankets, pillows, and couch cushions, then he sets her up with a humidifier and places a lukewarm compress against her ear. He gives her a dose of Tylenol, lies down on the floor next to her, and turns on her favorite cartoons. 

I bring them both a plate of lunch. 

“I need to go get some work done. Can I get you anything?” 

He looks up at me serenely, his hand gently stroking Calliope’s arm, and shakes his head. I frown down at them, because I want nothing more than to be doing exactly what he is. But I missed most of my day yesterday, and the Greenwich Library is a gigantic undertaking that requires tasks to be completed daily in order for it to be ready in time for it’s launch date. So, I lean down and kiss them both, then drag myself to my office.

It’s rough. There’s more than enough in my inbox alone to keep me busy for hours, but I can’t lose myself in it. My mind is completely occupied with Calliope. Trudging through the hours as I separate manuscript prospects, approve previous titles for inclusion in the library, send a few emails back and forth with legal regarding the changes in our contracts, and review shipping manifests for both the printing press and the warehouse, feels like fighting a war. Each task I accomplish just makes me look at everything I still have left to do. Things I wouldn’t get done today regardless of whether or not I was at home. I can feel myself getting overwhelmed, but I manage to calm myself, remind myself of the stakes, and labor through my endless to-do list. 

Eventually, Christian comes to rescue me. 

“It’s six o’clcok,” he says, grabbing the arms of my chair and physically turning me away from my computer. “You’re off the clock.” 

“Okay, I just need to…” 

He silences me with a kiss, refusing to allow any excuses. “It’s six o’clock, Anastasia.” 

“It’s six o’clock,” I agree. Then I pull away from him, log off my profile, and shut down my computer. He smiles at me. 

“I’ve missed you.” 

“Me too. Where’s Calliope?” 

“In bed. Mackensie put her down about forty minutes ago. I was just going to go wake her up for dinner, but I thought I’d come get you first.” He gives me a pointed look. “I knew you’d be the difficult one.” 

“Kensie’s here?” 

He nods. “She moved back in this morning.” 

I squeal and run out to the living room to hug her, but the moment I walk through my office door, I smell the most enticing smell I could imagine and it makes me stop as suddenly as if I hit a brick wall. 

They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and oh-ho-ho did I not know what I had in Gail until I’d lost her. Every single day has been more overwhelming than the last since she left as I’ve had to face the magnitude of exactly how much she really does for us. 

However much Christian paid her to come back, it isn’t enough. 

The reunion I have with Gail is tearful, as is the reunion I have with her cooking. Actual tears of joy spring to my eyes as I dive into her seared scallops. Christian laughs at me over his glass of wine. 

Having dinner together in our home feels like a rare privilege. We’ve almost forgotten how to work together to feed the baby and ourselves. Each time we bump into one another, or knock something over onto the table trying to get out of the other’s way, we start to laugh. He takes my apparently very clumsy hands in his after I accidentally push down on the serving dish and scorch part of my palm, and brings them to his lips. 

“Better?” he asks, placing one last soft kiss on the already fading red mark. I nod, humming in gratitude. Then we start moving in tandem again, better this time, like taking just a moment to physically connect was all it took to fall right back into our old habits. 

Once dinner is over, Christian carries Calliope to the tub and does most of the work bathing her while I hover over him and enjoy watching them interacting with one another. She’s different tonight, despite the fact that she doesn’t feel well she’s happier and much less resistant. I know that it’s because she’s missed this, having us both here to give her our complete and undivided attention. So when Christian insists he be the one to dress her in her pajamas and then sweeps her into his lap for her bedtime story, my heart feels full beyond capacity again. 

“Hey,”I say, grabbing on to his t-shirt to stop him from walking away after we’ve gotten Calliope to sleep and closed her door behind us. He turns to me, one eyebrow cocked. I move to wrap my arms around his middle. “I love you.” 

He smiles, surprised by my declaration but pleased that I’ve made it. “I love you too.” 

I rise up onto my tiptoes and brush my lips against his, leaving feather soft kisses against his mouth until he finally takes over and pulls me deep into him. We’d talked earlier about maybe cuddling together on the couch and watching a movie tonight, but those plans are quickly abandoned and he walks me back to our bedroom without ever breaking our kiss. 

Once we’re inside, he tosses me on the bed like a ragdoll, an implied warning for me to stay exactly where he’s left me as he turns back to close the door and dim the lights. I sit on my knees and watch him move around the room. My breath catches in my throat when he reaches behind his head and yanks his t-shirt off. 

Even after all these years, he still manages to take my breath away. Every. Single. Time. 

“Get the fuck over here,” I tell him, my voice strained almost as tightly as his pants. He folds his arms over that strong, beautiful chest, and cocks an eyebrow at me. 

“That sounded an awful lot like a demand.” 

“Maybe it was.” 

His eyes flame at me from under hooded lids and the muscles in his arms twitch. It should make me nervous, but it doesn’t. It excites me. Makes me drip for him. Makes me willing to do anything he asks so long as I get my hands on him. 

He licks his lips, unable to conceal his hunger. “Don’t move.” 

A shiver runs through me while I watch him stock off for his closet and I actually feel my clit start to throb. I want to call him back to me, but I know that will only make him take longer. Instead, I strip out of all my clothes and lay back against the pillows, breathing him in while I listen to the ominous sound of leather and metal buckles clinking at me from the closet. For half a second, I almost consider touching myself while I wait. 

“I told you not to move,” Christian’s icy voice calls when he’s stepped out of the closet. I furrow my brow at him.

“I didn’t.” 

“I left you dressed.” He drops a set of restraints on the bed. “I was very much looking forward to peeling every stitch of fabric off of you…”

I swallow and stare at him for a moment, considering my next move. Despite the restraints, I know he intends to make love to me tonight. It’s my decision now if I want to let him follow through with his plans, or if I’d rather coax out the dominant.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have taken so fucking long.” 

Dominant it is.

He’s on me in the next second, his body pinning me to the bed so I can’t move. His hand grabs hold of a fist full of my hair, then he forces me to look in his eyes. 

“You think that smart mouth of yours is going to taunt me into giving you what you want?” he hisses in my ear, the words verging on threatening. The throb in my clit intensifies. “You should know by now that you’re only going to get what I want to give you. What I want to take from you. And I know you fucking love that. No matter how desperate you get for me to make you come, you’d give it up just to please me.” 

I whimper, angling my pelvis to his, trying to get some kind of friction. 

“Say it, Ana.” 

I want to. It’s true, after all. He could force me down on my knees right now and order me to suck his cock, come down my throat, and not touch me for the rest of the night, and I’d still fall asleep feeling accomplished. But I don’t want that. I want his touch. I want his tongue. I want him to fuck me.

“Say it, Ana,” he repeats, his tone harsher this time. 

“Christian, please…” I squirm against him again. “I’ll beg.” 

“I don’t want to hear you beg. I want you to tell me what you really want.” 

It’s a final warning. If I don’t give him what he wants, he’ll spank me next. Although, that just makes me feel like I shouldn’t say it…

“I want to please you, Christian,” I say anyway. “Nothing else matters, just use me.” 

He gives me a wicked smile. “Put your hands over your head.” 

I do, and he reaches down for the restraints, securing each one to my wrists and to the bed. He pulls them so tight that I can’t even adjust the way my arm stretches helplessly over my head. The leather bites into my skin when I try, and it makes my nipples harden. 

“Beautiful,” he says, bending down to flick his tongue around my pebbled flesh. I moan, arching my back to push my breast deeper into his mouth. To my surprise, he doesn’t punish my rapacity. He sucks, hard, against my breast, while his hands move up to firmly kneed the other one. My mouth drops open, the moans turning into silent screams of pleasure. I almost think I could come just like this. 

Then he stops. 

“Wait, no…” I beg. He climbs onto the bed, sliding his knee across the comforter until it’s pressed into my ribs. Then he swings the other over me and leans over to support himself on the headboard. His cock swings heavily, directly in front of my lips. 

“Suck.” 

I comply without hesitation. There’s only so much of him I can take, since I can’t really move, and that makes him start to thrust. I moan around him, looking up at him, and then letting my eyes roll back into my head when he pushes into my throat. He groans and the gentle strokes he’s making in and out of my mouth, suddenly become much more insistent. 

I refuse to let his brutality be the factor behind his orgasm. While he grips my hair and thrusts deep into my throat, I swallow to make it tighter. I move the flat of my tongue around every part of him I can reach. I pull hard on him with my cheeks and with my lips. I feel him stiffen, swollen now to his absolute limit, so I expect him to pull back. 

He doesn’t. 

“I’m going to come,” he warns me. “Swallow.” 

I can only hum my response and pull as much of him into my mouth as I can manage without breaking my restraints. It’s enough, because he calls out a strangled version of my name, and I feel him explode in a salty surge down my throat. Once he’s empty, he thrusts a few more times. Slower. More shallow. Then he pulls out, moves down the bed, and yanks my legs open with a kind of rude indifference that tells me he’s the one in control. 

I can’t help it. The display of ownership has me burning with need for him. So the second his tongue slides across my clit, I come apart. It’s intense, weeks worth of missed connection and unreleased desire compounding the pleasure until my entire body trembles and I’m screaming his name. One long arm reaches up my body, his hand moving up to silence me while his mouth continues to devour me. The second I come down, he starts building me towards my second orgasm. It hits just as hard as the first and I end up thrashing so violently against my restraints, his hand slips and I accidentally bite down on his finger. 

“Fuck, Ana!” he rasps, pulling away and then slamming his cock into me as I ride the final waves of my orgasm. He grunts, fighting against the pulses of my inner walls that try to push him out. Forcing himself in anyway.

“Yes!” I cry out. “Oh, god! That’s so good!” 

“Quiet,” he warns, his mouth licking and sucking at mine between words. “You’ll wake the baby.” 

I press my lips together, so hard my teeth are digging into them from the inside, and choke down my screams. 

“Good girl,” he praises me. The angle changes slightly as he pushes my knees up into my breasts and opens me more to him. Again, I force a deep, pleasure induced sob back down. “Can you take more and stay quiet?” 

I nod and he thrusts harder. 

“More?” he growls again. I close my eyes, wrap my fingers around the leather restraints, and nod again. 

It’s harder to hold back once he really lets himself go. The dirty words he whispers in my ear and the punishing rhythm he uses to pound in and out of me all have me so hot, I feel like I could combust. 

When I do, my orgasm sparks deep in my gut and explodes through my entire body like fireworks. He once again brings his mouth to mine. With his lips muffling the sounds of my cries, I let them go. I don’t even try to hold back, and it has him thrusting into me so hard there’s a worrying creak coming from the frame of our bed. 

He looks up at the headboard, taking his lips from mine, and I have to bite down on his shoulder to keep myself from screaming again. He hisses in pain, but it makes him start to thrust more urgently. His eyes are strained as he stares down into mine. Then every part of him tightens and the low but guttural sounds that force their way out from deep inside his chest make me feel like the sexiest woman alive. When he comes, I feel it fill me with surprising force. I wrap my legs around him, holding him inside of me, making sure he gives me all of it. 

Maybe I am greedy tonight

We lie there for a long time. Our breathing slows, and our heart rates return to normal. He doesn’t roll off of me. He nuzzles me, leaves soft kisses against the skin of my throat. 

“Christian?” 

“Hm?” he hums, his content obvious. 

“Can I have my hands back?” 

“Oh, sorry…” He gives me a guilty look as he reaches up and releases the restraints. There are angry looking marks on each of my wrists, which he kisses tenderly before I wrap my arms around him. 

“God, this feels good,” he says, and I laugh.

“Well, I should hope so…” 

“No, not that.” He rolls his eyes. “Though, also that… But I mean just being here with you. Seeing Calliope during the day, getting to spend time with her while she’s awake… it feels so fucking good.” 

“I know. It feels good to have you home too.” 

“And I am home. Until Calliope is ready to go back to daycare. I’ll stay home with her so you can focus on your project.”

My face morphs with shock. “Really? You will?” 

“You did it for me.” 

I bite my lip, the gratitude and love swelling in my chest warring with one another so the victor can tumble out of me and land on Christian. I don’t wait to see which wins out, I release them both by molding my lips to his and whispering, “thank you,” over and over again. 

He grins against my mouth and wags his eyebrows at me. 

“Don’t thank me yet…” he says, then he starts to move down my body again. 

Chapter 32

A week later, I wake up in my bed alone. I want to groan when the vibrations of my phone on the nightstand pull me from a deep sleep, and ignore it. Cling instead to just a few more minutes of sleep. Then I remember Calliope is in the bed with me and my eyes snap open, my hand flies out, and I roll out of bed as gently as I can, tip toeing toward the bathroom while the phone continues to buzz in my palm. I don’t have to look at the name, don’t even have to check the time. Christian’s phone calls have been so consistent over the last week that I’m pretty sure he’s set an alarm on his phone for several times throughout the day to remind himself to call me.

“Hello?”

“Good morning.” His voice is rough, like he’s swallowed a handful of gravel and each word gets caught in the jagged carnage on its way out. He sounds worse than he did yesterday, and yesterday he’d sounded so bad, I nearly went down to GEH just to drag him back here myself. “How did you sleep?”

“You’d know if you were here.”

“I know. I will be. Soon. We’re close. So fucking close.” The strain in his words worries me. Whatever revelation he’d had the night of our anniversary had started something with his R&D department, but he hasn’t told me what it is. Every time I ask what he’s doing, the only response I get is, “saving my company.” So, I don’t even ask anymore. Instead, I find myself repeating the only question I actually do care about.

“When is soon? Tonight? Tomorrow? Next week?”

“I don’t know. Just… soon.” I hear him take a deep breath, then he changes the subject. “Are you going to work today? I had Andrea schedule some time with Flynn, if you need it.”

So he hasn’t forgotten that today is the anniversary of the Lincoln incident. 

My chest tightens at the mention of it, and deep in the recesses of my gut, I feel the ghost of an urge to lock myself away with Calliope and shield her from the dangerous people in the world. But it’s not the overwhelming, uncontrollable compulsion it was a year ago.

“Yes, I’m going to work, and no, I don’t need Flynn,” I tell him. “I’ve got a full day so I don’t think I’ll have much time to think about it, and Kate’s coming over tonight.”

“Good,” he replies, though the relief I hear in his sentiment makes my stomach drop. I guess that means he won’t be home tonight after all. “I have to go, but I wanted to tell you how much I love you and that you’ve been on my mind every second I’ve been away.”

“Is that why it’s taking so long?” I ask, sarcastically. He laughs.

“Maybe.” Another pause, another breath. “Soon, baby. I’ll be home soon and then this nightmare will be over. You still believe in me?”

“Always and forever.” 

He hums in satisfaction before he continues. “I love you, Ana. I’ll call you later, okay? If you need anything today, anything, Andrea is on stand-by waiting to make it happen.”

“Thank you, but I’m fine. And I love you too. Bye.”

He hangs up and I slowly pull the phone away from my ear, staring down at the blank screen for a long time. He’ll call again at 11:30, right after my meeting with the New York office. But the perfectly scheduled phone calls throughout the day don’t make up for the fact that he isn’t here. It makes me wonder if this is how he felt while I was in Cambridge, and if so, how he survived it for as long as he did. It’s only been a week and I feel like my heart has been stolen right out of my chest. I don’t think I’ve taken a good, solid breath since I last saw him.

I shake away the thoughts souring my mood and step into the shower.

Calliope sleeps much later than is normal for her. I manage to get fully dressed for work, and she’s still completely zonked out by the time I come to collect her. She wakes though, when I lift her into my arms.

“Daddy?” she whimpers, her breath already hitching with the tears she’s got on standby. I gently graze my fingers over her back and lean down to kiss the top of her head.

“Daddy’s at work, Calli-lilly.”

“No!” Her face devolves into a look of tortured misery and she picks right back up with the tantrum she’d thrown until I’d finally gotten her to sleep the night before. I groan and start to bounce her on my hip, offering soothing words as I do my best to get her ready. Ultimately, she ends up in clothes that are maybe a little too close to pajamas for daycare and her hair is ratty, even in her ponytail, but I can’t fight with her anymore, I’m too drained.

And, apparently, I’m not the only one.

Luke’s standing in the kitchen over the coffee pot when I get downstairs, looking like the walking dead. The circles under his eyes are stark against his pale face, and he looks so drained that he can’t even hold his body up straight. Everything about him sags.

“You alright?” I check while I wrestle my still screaming daughter into her high chair. He looks over at me as I start moving around the kitchen to prepare her breakfast and gives me a weak smile.

“Yeah, I just… didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.” I frown, wondering if anyone should be worrying about how he’s going to handle today the way Christian worries for me. He was shot after all, surely there’s some kind of PTSD that goes along with that.

“I’m sorry. I’m trying my best not to think about it myself.”

He pulls a mug from the cupboard next to him, turning a questioning look on me as he pours himself a cup of coffee. “Not think about what?”

“Lincoln. Today’s… the… day it happened.”

“Oh, shit. It is? Fuck, Ana, I didn’t realize…. A-are you okay? Do you need me to take you to Flynn or maybe, I don’t know… take the day off and we can drive up to the lake and hang out with your dad?”

“No, I packed my day full so I won’t even have time to give it a second thought. I…” My words falter as I realize that, if it’s not Lincoln that kept him up, it’s something else. “Wait, why didn’t you sleep last night? Is everything okay?”

His cheeks pink ever so slightly, though I can’t quite figure out the emotion behind it. “Yeah, I was just… thinking about stuff.”

“About Jade?”

His whole body stiffens, and the mug he’s lifting to his lips freezes in midair. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you not sleeping because you’re thinking of Jade?”

“Oh.” He looks relieved. “Yeah, I guess…”

“Have you tried calling her?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to talk about it, Ana.”

“You never want to talk about it.”

“So you think you’d have gotten the fucking hint by now.”

I’m putting fruit and cereal on Calliope’s tray, but I stop in the middle of what I’m doing because I’m actually a little shocked by the bite in his tone. Luke’s never spoken to me that way before, and now that the words are floating in the empty space between us, the remorse is immediately apparent on his face.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just cranky because I’m tired and apparently that turns me into a dick so… sorry. I’ll chill out, I promise.”

I nod, but while his tone suggests he’s ready for the conversation to move on, I’m not. “I hate watching you being torn apart over her and not being able to do anything for you. I wanna help you, Luke.”

“There’s nothing you can do.” He places his empty mug in the sink, and turns a hard look at Calliope, who is throwing handfuls of her breakfast onto the floor while she wails into the ether in complete and utter misery. “Just like there’s nothing you can do to stop that.”

I look over at her and drop my head, groaning in frustration. I swear to god, If Christian isn’t home soon…

Luke helps clean up the mess while I clean Calliope’s hands and wash the tears from her flushed face, then we pile in the car and make our way straight to GEH. Calliope doesn’t reach for her teacher when we walk through the door the way she normally does. She treats the woman’s smiling face and friendly words like they’re a threat and screams when her teacher tries to take her out of my arms. Prying my baby’s fingers off of my blouse is the last straw.

I march out of her daycare, straight to the elevators, and start pounding the button for Christian’s floor.

“You sure it’s a good idea to bother him?” Luke asks.

“So now it’s bothering him to spend any time with his daughter? To even see her?”

“Fair point.”

We take the elevator all the way up to the top floor, where I find Andrea and Olivia sitting behind their desk, looking bored. There’s a deck of cards between them, though it looks like they’ve abandoned whatever game they were playing. Now they’re just leaning back in their chairs, chatting casually while sipping coffee from GEH branded mugs.

“Ana!” Andrea starts when I come through the door. “You’re here. Uh… Mr. Grey said that I should… um… Can I get you anything?” 

Lincoln. She thinks I’m here because of Lincoln.

I push the thought away and ignore her question while I ask one of my own. “Is he in his office?”

“No.” She cringes, like she’s afraid I’m going to yell at her or something. I stop and turn a questioning look on her.

“Then where is he?”

“I assume he’s in the R&D lab. He’s not exactly checking in with me right now.” She waves to the cards on her desk, signaling she has nothing to do.

I frown, feeling all the fight drain out of me. Half of it is because I actually do want to give him this space to work out his problems with GEH. Especially today, knowing that a large part of his motivation for the fusion project was the power it would afford him, power he only wanted so he could protect me from exactly the kind of thing that happened one year ago. That’s probably a big part of why he’s been constantly apologizing to me over the past few weeks, constantly seeking reassurance. He feels vulnerable, and now that he doesn’t even have the full power of his company or the vast majority of his fortune to use in order to protect what he loves, he’s wounded.

Maybe the same way I need to bury myself in work to get away from today, he does too.

The other half is that I can’t actually get into the R&D lab. There’s a code and it’s so secretive that Christian hasn’t even entrusted it to me.

“Well,” I hesitate, chewing over my words as I decide exactly how to say them. “If you see him, tell him he needs to go down and spend some time with his daughter. If he doesn’t see her today, then all of these things that he’s killing himself trying to fix right now will be the least of his problems.”

She nods, hurriedly. “Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I look down at my watch. Shit, I’m late.

“Good,” I tell her, then offer a small smile to Olivia before I turn back to the elevator. “Have a good day, ladies.” I eye the deck of cards again. “Try not to fall asleep, huh?”

Andrea laughs then waves back to me as I follow Luke through the glass doors and back into the elevator.

We rush to GSP, but I still have to go straight into my Monday morning meeting without even stopping into my office. There isn’t much to go over since I still haven’t found the diamond in the rough I’ve been searching for, but I have loosened the reins a little on what is currently being approved. It’s just the titles that I’ve accepted so far have been sent to New York to be added to the Greenwich Library, which means they will all be talked about in the meeting I have directly following this one.

I have fifteen minutes after I’m finished with my conference call to New York to prepare for my next meeting. This time with Welch and Barney. I’ve sent them a preliminary wish list for the app design, and today I should get to see how much of that list is actually possible. When I get to my office, I start to pull up the communication we’ve sent back and forth, going over it all again even though there isn’t really anything I can do before speaking with the GEH engineers. I expect Christian to call me and take up what time I have anyway. Except that he doesn’t. I’m left completely to myself until Abby pages me to let me know that the GEH team has arrived. 

I thank her and move to open my door, only to be surprised by the two men who step inside. Barney, I know. The other man, I’ve never seen before.

“Where’s Welch?” I ask.

Chagrin immediately washes across Barney’s face. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. Welch has been reassigned to a very, high-priority project within GEH. This is my new partner, Jared Cole.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Grey.” Jared reaches out a hand to shake mine. I take it, then motion for the two men to take the chairs on the other side of my desk. As I settle down, I place my elbows on the hard, cherry surface in front of me, and rest my chin over my folded hands.

“The contract I signed with Christian said Welch.” I don’t want to sound as harsh as I think I do, but this is a point of contention for me. I agreed to Christian’s proposal because I wanted to work with Welch. He’s the best, and while I know Barney was instrumental in the app we designed together last time, he’s still not as good as his mentor.

“Can I level with you, Mrs. Grey?” Barney asks. I nod, and he continues. “I’ve been waiting for this chance for years.. Mr. Grey’s expectations are very high. He told me to make anything you asked for happen, no excuses. And if I can, if I can really impress you with what I’m able to build, I’m pretty sure he’ll promote me up to the same level as Welch. This is a huge opportunity for me, and I’d really appreciate it if you gave me a shot.”

I take a deep breath and let it out in a low sigh. “And I’d love to give it to you, Barney. Really, I would. But… this is my business. I don’t have any wiggle room here to leave anything up to chance.”

“I know, believe me. Can I just… show you some of the things we’ve been working on? I think if you can see it, if we can talk through some of the things you’ve asked for, we might be able to win you over.”

And he does. Everything from the art renderings to the accessibility functions are exactly how I’d pictured them. Sleek and intuitive, but warm and inviting. The app we designed for Grey Publishing was perfectly on brand for GEH, all chrome and thin, capital typeface. The images he shows me are filled with color and whimsy, like a children’s book. There’s a wholesomeness that somehow combines with the smart, cutting-edge technology in a way that makes me feel like I’m in a modernized, fantastical bookshop drinking a warm cup of really good, artisan coffee.

“This is exactly what I’m looking for,” I tell him, sitting back in my chair thoroughly impressed. He lights up.

“Really?”

“Really. I’m sold. I—“ I’m cut off by the paging tone through my desk phone, then Abby’s voice fills my office.

“Ana, you’ve got a call on line one.”

I shoot an astounded look down at the phone. “I’m in a meeting, Abby…”

“It’s Calliope’s daycare.”

My face goes blank and I reach for the receiver so quickly that I’m already accepting the call by the time the thought crosses my mind to at least apologize and politely excuse myself from our conversation. I try to convey exactly that with the conciliatory smile I offer to both of them.

“This is Ana,” I answer.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your day, Mrs. Grey, but I’m calling to let you know that Calliope is running a little bit of a fever.”

“What?”

“She’s been unusually fussy all morning, so we decided to check her temperature and sure enough, 100.4.”

“Oh, Callie… Have you given her anything? I think I’ve already given you her pediatrician’s number but I can email it to you if you need it.”

“Mrs. Grey, the reason I called was actually because our facility has a policy that doesn’t allow us to accept any child who’s running a temperature. For the safety of the other children, you understand. I’m afraid you’re going to have to come get her.”

Shit! I don’t even have to glance at my calendar, I know it’s completely packed. Even if I could dip out and pull her out of daycare, I can’t just send her home alone.

I don’t have Kensie. 

I don’t have Gail.

“Could you call her father? I don’t think I can get out of here…”

“We called Mr. Grey first, he didn’t answer. His assistant didn’t know how to reach him.”

Of course not.

“Okay.” I let out an irritable sigh into the phone. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

I hang up the phone and turn regretful eyes on the men sitting across from me. “I hate to call this short when everything you’ve shown me has been so amazing, but unfortunately, I have to go.”

“That’s fine, Mrs. Grey. We’ve got some good direction to go on. Now that we know you’re happy, we can start programming. I should have a basic beta version for you to play around with in a week? Just so you can get a feel for the functionality.”

“Perfect. How soon until I can send you the file loads with the library data?”

“Probably closer to three weeks, if everything goes according to plan.”

And with my luck, nothing will. “That’s cutting it close but I think I can work with that timeline. You’ll keep in touch, let me know how you’re progressing?”

He smiles a familiar kind of smile, like he’s dealt with this kind of hovering time and time again. When I remember that he works for my husband, I realize he probably has.

“I’ll send updates as often as you want them, Mrs. Grey.”

“Good.” I stand and wave to the door, offering them each a handshake once I’ve led them back out to reception. As soon as they’re out the door, I turn and peer through the low, glass walls separating each workspace in search of my CPO.

“Luke, I’ve got to go.” He looks up from his laptop and gives me a questioning look. “Calliope’s sick, I have to pick her up.”

With a nod, he closes the lid to his computer, slides it into a messenger bag, and starts across the room towards me. We don’t say a word to each other until we’re in the car, and I feel like I can take a second to fall apart under the stress compounding on top of me.

“What am I going to do?” I ask him. “I’m supposed to be in a meeting with marketing all afternoon, we’re launching the publicity materials for the app next week…”

“Can you call Kate or Elliot?”

“They’re at work.”

“Grace?”

“Surgery.”

“Carrick?”

“He’s literally running the city right now, Luke.”

“Well, I can watch her,” he offers. “You can do your meeting remotely from your office at home, Calliope and I will hang out and watch some dope ass cartoons.”

“That’s not your job, Luke.”

“Not my job as your CPO, maybe. But, it might be my job as your best friend.”

I turn to him, feeling a sudden burst of gratitude that so intense it nearly leaks through my eyes. “Really?”

“Yeah. To be honest, after the night I had, I can’t think of anything better than having your husband pay me to lay on the couch for the rest of the day and watch Darkwing Duck with my favorite little munchkin.”

I laugh. “Good luck with that. I bet she gives you two minutes of the duck before she starts screaming for Dora.”

“Gross.” We laugh together this time, but as the sound dies off, I start to feel a nagging sense of guilt eating at the inside of my stomach. Then, when I realize that I’m only feeling it now because I’ve figured out how I’m going to meet all of my other obligations, that guilt intensifies.

“Do you think I’m a bad mom, Luke?”

His head spins so fast, part of me worries if he’s going to experience whiplash. “No! Why would you even say that?”

“Because it never even occurred to me that she could be sick. She slept in late, she was crabby all morning, she didn’t eat any of her breakfast, and she was extra clingy to me when we took her to daycare. All the signs were there. I just thought she missed Christian.”

“So did I.”

“But I should have noticed something, right? I’m her mom.”

“And you’re doing a lot right now, all on your own. It’s okay that you made a mistake. We’ve fixed it. She’s going to get to come home and get some rest and once you’re finished with your meetings, you’ll get to love up on her for the rest of the night.”

I nod, even though I’m still not fully convinced.

After we pick up Calliope from daycare, we make our way back to the house. I sit in the backseat with her for the ride, gently stroking her hair and leaning into her as much as I can while still confined by my seatbelt. Now that she’s not throwing a tantrum like she was this morning, it’s easy to see the difference in her behavior. She’s quiet, and she’s slumped in her car seat as though every part of her is miserable. It makes handing her over to Luke once we’re home feel like a cinch tightening around my heart, but somehow, just barely, I manage to let her go.

My thought’s never stray far from her, though. Not even as I spend the next three hours pouring over dozens of different types of promotional materials, obsessing over everything from what’s written in context, to the font it’s written in. I feel brain dead once I finally do end the call, but that doesn’t stop me from bolting out of my seat and rushing for Calliope.

Unsurprisingly, she’s laying across Luke’s chest on the couch, staring at Dora the Explorer on the TV. I grin at him.

“How’s Darkwing Duck?”

He lifts a finger to his lips. “That fox is back. If we don’t say the thing then he’s gonna steal the map and she’s never gonna find the magical rainforest.”

“Oh, this is actually kind of a good one.” I crawl onto the couch, nestling between his feet and contorting the rest of me around his legs since he’s taking up the whole couch. As Luke and I talk, my eyes move down to Calliope and I watch her snuggle against him every so often, rubbing her cheek against his shirt or pushing her fingers into his chest. I don’t know if he even notices, but it makes me feel like the gentle, summer rain that has started outside has swept through the house and washed away all the shame and worry I’ve felt all afternoon. She loves him just as much as he loves her. I didn’t actually abandon my sick baby for my work. I just left her in very good hands.

“Can I get you anything?” I ask, smiling down at him.

“A catheter?”

I laugh, then reach out for Calliope, pulling her into my lap and wrapping as much of myself around her as possible. Luke rolls off the couch and moves down the hall to the bathroom. She sniffles, but simply cuddles into my embrace and starts playing with my hair, her eyes still glued to the TV. She really must be sick because I’ve never seen anything hold her attention this long.

Luke and I trade off with Calliope until around six, when Kate shows up with tacos and tequila. The tacos we dig into right away, the tequila we decide can wait until after Calliope goes to bed.

“It’s probably good that she gets a little extra sleep,” I tell them after I’ve gotten her dinner cleaned up. “I’ll go put her down now.”

“And I’ll get the blender,” Kate says. She reaches into a bag and pulls out another bottle, margarita mix this time, and starts doing her own, goofy celebration dance. I nod enthusiastically and tell Luke where he can find the salt for the rims in the pantry, then scoop my daughter into my arms to carry her off to bed.

“No!” she protests after the very first step. She turns her body in my arms and searches for Luke, reaching out for him to take her the second her eyes find him. “Daddy!”

“No, that’s not Daddy, silly girl,” I say, taking the hand she’s holding out for Luke and tucking it back into me. Luke, meanwhile, starts blinking wildly and looking into the corners of the room.

“What are you doing, spaz?” Kate asks.

He blinks again, then looks between us. “I swear to god I just heard Grey tell me I’m fired.”

Kate devolves into a fit of laughter. I roll my eyes.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes and there’d better be a margarita waiting for me.”

“Sure thing!” Kate says. I wink, then turn to carry Calliope up the stairs and to her bedroom.

She goes down easy. In fact, I don’t even get all the way through her favorite bedtime story before she’s completely out. But even only being away for a few minutes wasn’t enough to get in the way of Kate delivering on her promise. I descend the stairs and the moment I cross the threshold into the living room, she pushes an ice cold margarita into my hands.

“You’re my hero,” I tell her, taking a welcome sip. Mmm.

“Well there’s plenty more where that came from. Christian’s not gonna be here, I get a night off from being a mom, it’s only the three of us–just like the good old days… I’m getting you drunk, Steele.”

“Here, here!” I clink my glass against hers and follow her to the couch. Luke eyes us both with interest.

“You’re not going to want to go anywhere tonight, right?” he checks.

I give him a look like he’s insane. “God, no.”

“Then fuck it, let’s get wasted.”

“Oh my god, you’re actually going to drink with us?” Kate asks, her eyes go wide in astonishment. Not once in the entire time we were in college would Luke even take a sip of alcohol while Kate and I were drinking. She looks now like someone just told her Christmas was coming early. Luke just shrugs.

“It’s been a rough few weeks.”

“Well then let’s get you something to make you feel better!” She smiles at me excitedly as she gets off the couch to make another margarita. I turn to make eye contact with Luke.

“Drinking while on duty is breaking the rules and you’re not a rule breaker. Wouldn’t have anything to do with Jade, would it?”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Ana,” he says, his tone teasing. I grin back, then get off the couch and pull him into the kitchen after Kate.

“Maybe you will after you have a bunch of tequila.”

The night is everything I didn’t know I needed. Not only do I manage to go the entire night without once devolving into tears over Lincoln, I don’t even think about him. Not once. I don’t think about work and the deadlines I have to meet, and the still crushing weight of what I have left to accomplish hanging over me. I don’t even spend much time worrying about why Christian hasn’t called me one time since this morning, despite the fact that his phone calls have been eerily regular every other day this week. The only things I concern myself with are the drinks Kate keeps pouring, and the music we’re singing, and dancing to together.

It’s freeing, like all this time I’d been holding my breath, and getting the chance to blow off steam with Kate and Luke is the first time I’ve been able to release it.

“Take it, Luke!” Kate says drunkenly, pointing across the kitchen at him dramatically while she sways to the smooth sounds of the Beach Boys. Luke picks up the broom leaning against the wall and pulls it to him as though it were a microphone.

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya.” 

He points back to Kate and she starts to sing, “Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama.”

I take over. “Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t go?”

Luke sweeps through the kitchen, between Kate and I, pulling the broom with him. He sways with it like a Latin crooner while he sings along with Mike Love. “Off the Florida Keeeeeeeeys, there’s a place called Kokomo…”

Kate and I let him take the lead vocals and start dancing around him, trying to keep up the island theme despite the fact that it means we’re just doing a very uncoordinated hula dance around my kitchen island. Luke belts the song out perfectly though, so none it feels stupid or embarrassing. It’s all just fun, like old times.

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya…”

“To Bermuda, Bahama, come on, pretty mama.”

“Key Largo, Monetego, baby, why don’t we go…”

“Down to Kokomo…” The three of us freeze and turn to the doorway that leads into the kitchen from the garage. Christian is standing there and he’s… grinning. He sways into the kitchen toward me. “We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow.” 

Kate and Luke look at each other and at the same time, they practically shout, “That’s where we wanna go!” at each other. 

Christian laughs as I dance into his arms and finishes, “Way down to Kokomo.

“You came home,” I say ecstatically once the song has ended, my smile somehow managing to find a way to widen even further. 

“Welcome to Kokomo!” Kate adds. She throws her hands in the air and starts to spin, losing her balance halfway through and toppling over onto the kitchen counter. She laughs as she looks back up at Christian. “Wanna drink? We have plenty.”

“I can see that,” Christian replies. There’s an easy humor in his voice, but there’s also a finality that even I recognize as dismissal. Kate blinks back unwittingly, but Luke goes to her and picks her up off the counter.

“Come on, let’s go to bed.” He guides her out of the kitchen, but even he stumbles on the way out, and Kate’s giggles echo at back to us from the hallway.

“You’re so drunk, Luke.”

“Snitches get stitches, Kate.”

I laugh once more, then turn back to Christian. I don’t have time to register the kiss that hits me before I’ve even turned my head. I let out a surprised yelp that he quickly swallows as he pushes me back into the wall.

“I’ve missed you,” he says into my mouth, too desperate for the contact to even break away from the kiss for a second. “So fucking much.”

I moan and he picks up my hands, securing them over my head against the wall. Briefly, I get a peek of my name emblazoned across his forearm in blue ink, peeking out from under the rolled up sleeves of his wrinkled white shirt. It’s exactly the reason why I picked that spot and desire begins to bloom hot and urgent inside of me while I eye it.

“Are you home?” I whisper, needing to know before I fully give myself to the lust I know will wipe all questions from my mind.

“It would appear so,” he laughs. His erection grinds into me and I moan.

“I mean for good. Whatever you have going on at work, are you finished?”

That makes him pull back and when he does I see something powerful burning in his eyes. Not lust. Not love. Victory.

“I did it, Ana.”

“Did what?”

“The fusion project, the prototype. It works. I did it.”

All thoughts of getting this gorgeous man naked drain out of me like someone pulling the plug on a bathtub. My mouth drops open, my eyes go wide in shock. I actually wonder for a second if I heard him correctly.

“The fusion project? That’s what you were doing? You went back to the fusion project?!”

“And I did it.”

“You… Christian! That project is unstable! It blew up! Twice!”

“Not this time.”

“You put yourself—“

“It works, Anastasia,” he says, placing a hand over my mouth to silence my protests. “I figured it out. Well, me and a team of very specialized experts. It works. I broke the laws of fucking physics and I created perpetual motion. Unlimited energy. I. Did. It.” 

That breaks through the angry fear filling my heart, but I’m left speechless in its absence. “What?”

He kisses me again. Harder this time, maybe. A thousand emotions are released into me at once, overwhelming me until I just surrender to him and let him unload everything that’s been boiling inside of him since this all started. He takes everything I give him and demands more. His tongue commands the kiss, his lips tell me where to go, his hands keep me there. When he finally pulls away, I’m breathless and his eyes are wild.

“It’s because of you. Because you believed in me. Because I knew that I’d have you. Because you gave me ‘no matter what.’ You have no idea what that means to me, Anastasia. I don’t know if I could ever make you understand just how much that carried me through everything I’ve had to deal with these past few months.”

His lips move to mine again, and he uses his body to tell me what words can’t. The connection between us has never felt stronger or more imperative than it does in that moment and I wonder if it’s because, while he consumes me so absolutely, I can feel that bond from his side too. I can feel the way he wants me. I can feel the way he needs me. I can feel the way he loves me. All in that one kiss.

I can’t get enough of it.

I wrap myself around him, clinging to him, trying to convey my pride and my happiness for his accomplishments just as much as I give him the joy I feel having him back again and the love that has always been his. I can’t be certain he feels it the way I can feel what he’s giving to me, but I hope so.

When he makes love to me in our bed that night and he shouts my name with near religious devotion as he comes deep inside of me, that hope changes to certainty. 

Next Chapter

Chapter 31

I’m bobbing anxiously by the time I step out of the elevator onto Christian’s floor, but Luke takes his sweet ass time dragging along behind me. He saunters towards the security key mounted against the wall as though he’s got all the time in the world to get there. And, once he finally does, he twists his badge in his hands and studies the black box as though he has to figure out how to unlock everything. It takes me actually threatening to march over and punch in the override code myself for him to finally press the plastic he’s holding against the scanner. He grins as we both hear the lock click open, and I yank open the frosted glass door. I ignore the clearly pleased look on his face and hurry forward until I walk into a scene I hadn’t been expecting.

Ros is bent over, supporting herself against Andrea and Olivia’s desk. The way Christian’s receptionist and assistant look at her, I’m worried she might be having a mental break.

“It’s just another chip on his shoulder, right?” Ros asks in a slightly hysterical voice. “It’ll make him fight harder. It’ll make him sharper, more ruthless. He’ll pull us through this. He has to, there’s just no other choice.”

“Ms. Bailey, Can I get you—” Andrea begins, but Ros’s tawny eyes shoot up to her with a look so wild that she immediately falls silent.

“He’s Christian Grey, Andrea. This doesn’t happen to him, doesn’t happen to us.”

“It’s just one client,” Olivia offers, but Ros shake’s her head.

“It’s not just this client. It’s the fusion project. It’s still in his head and now his confidence is shot to hell. He’s…” She turns like she’s going to start pacing, and her eyes fall on me for the first time. “Ana!”

“What happened?” I ask. I feel Luke behind me, placing a hand on my shoulder and squeezing. He’s reacting to my voice, which has suddenly lost all of its strength.

Ros swallows, then looks down at the floor. “We didn’t get the contract.”

I’d been holding my breath, expecting the worst. This isn’t the worst, not by far. Christian’s missed out on deals before, had clients decide to go in a different direction. It’s never so much as phased him.

“Okay, so he gets another one.”

“There isn’t another one.” She takes a deep breath and looks up at me. No longer frantic, her eyes look dead. “It wasn’t just about this contract, it was about the doors this deal would have opened, the pipeline it would have created, the contacts we would have made. There was real potential. Now, it’s just gone…. And we have nothing in its place.”

The way the last word breaks across her lips frightens me. I can see in her now the same hint of worry and uncertainty that Christian’s been trying to hide from me for weeks. Somehow seeing it from Ros makes it more real. Christian looks at everything like it could be the end of the world, it’s one of the reasons why he needs Ros so much. To bring him back to reality when he starts getting paranoid or feels like he’s made too many missteps, when he’s really sliding through everything like skates on freshly smoothed ice. If Ros is this scared, then things are worse than I’d imagined. And if Ros is this frantic, Christian is…

I take a purposeful step forward, but she reaches up to stop me.

“You really don’t want to go in there, Ana. It’s not good.”

“That means I have to.” I shrug off her touch and move around her, ignoring Andrea and Olivia’s stares as I start down the hall to Christian’s office.

I don’t pause to knock, even though the door is closed. I know he’s alone. He isn’t sitting in the strong, leather chair behind his gargantuan, solid desk like I expect him to be. At first the office looks completely empty. Then I see a movement out of the corner of my eye, and find Christian standing off to the right, staring at the city through the window. There’s an empty tumbler dangling from his right hand and when I glance over at the bar, I see the decanter of scotch is open and much emptier than it was the last time I was here.

“Christian?”

His shoulders rise and fall, then, slowly he turns to face me. None of the anxiety I saw in Ros is present in him at all. The moment his eyes find mine, his body relaxes and the smile that stretches across his face is so easy, so heart-stoppingly gorgeous that my breath catches in my throat. He tosses the tumbler on a small table next to the sitting area between us and charges toward me, cupping my face tenderly in his hands, and he brings our lips together. I nearly giggle as he sweeps me into the door and pins me between the solid wood and his rock hard chest.

“Christian, what are you doing?” I squeal. He silences me with another kiss, deeper this time. His tongue crosses my lips and takes full possession of my mouth. I hum and let my body melt against his, pulling myself as close to him as I can possibly get. The morning full of romance crashes over me again all at once, and suddenly I’m climbing him like a tree. Too desperate to be close to him, to peel away his expensive suit and feel his skin against mine, to care about anything else.

Not even the taste of the scotch that is so fresh on his tongue that I can feel the burn of the alcohol.

“Wait,” he breathes against me, grinning at my enthusiasm. “I really did intend for us to have lunch together.” His hands release their grip on my thighs and I slide down him until my feet hit the floor. He takes half a step to the side and I see that a table has been set for the two of us. Two covered dishes rest on either side of a bucket of champagne. There’s a single rose in the center of the table with three small tea light candles resting amongst the fallen petals. I smile at it, feeling the sweetness and the intimacy of his wants in the gesture.

“I thought you wanted reciprocation from this morning? I seem to remember receiving vague threats in my email about it.”

He gives me a lascivious smirk. “If you thought the promises I made to you were vague, I’d be happy to clear up any misunderstandings right now.”

“You said something about a spanking…”

There’s a flash of light across his gray eyes, a response to the challenge in my voice. He leans into me, the tip of his nose just barely grazing the line of my jaw, all the way up, until his lips are at my ear. 

“I’m going to strip you naked, Anastasia. Slowly. Carefully. Until you are completely bare and I can look or touch any part of your gorgeous body that I fucking want. Then I’ll put you over my knee and spank you while  you tell me again every single thing you did to yourself this morning. You’ll take it until you’re so sore that you’ll feel it the next time you try to put your hands between your legs and take what you know belongs to me. Then I’ll lay you out, bury my face between your legs, and stay there until you’ve come so many times that you’ll need a day off just to remember how to move again. And that, is when I’ll fuck you.”

I swallow, but my throat has suddenly gone dry.

“But we only have an hour right now. And I’m not going to indulge in you until I can really lose myself.”

“So, tonight.” I lick my lips and his eyes move down to my mouth.

“Yes. Tonight. Right now…” he takes my hand and leads me to the table, pulling out my chair and pouring me a glass of bubbly, pink champagne before taking the seat next to me. I lift the metal lid on the dish in front of me, expecting some fancy catered lunch, but there’s a cardboard take-out box waiting for me. I eye it suspiciously until I pop the top and find the noodles I’m obsessed with from the place right around the corner from Escala. I don’t even know that I’ve had them since we’ve moved.

I give him a look that I hope conveys all the dirty things I’m going to do to him later for this and start to dig in. He chuckles, then picks up a pair of chopsticks and starts on his own container. We eat in silence for a few long, drawn out minutes until I can’t help but ask the question that’s been plaguing me since I stepped through the doors.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He furrows his brow. “About what?”

“Your meeting this morning.” My chopsticks freeze, hovering over the container in my hand while I wait for his reaction. It isn’t a good one. He places his food back on the table and sits back in his chair without looking at me.

“You know about that?”

“Ros is having a meltdown in your lobby.”

He makes a disgusted sound and shakes his head as he once again reaches for the takeout container. “Great.”

“What happened?”

“I got beat.” His tone is flat, devoid of any emotion, so I can’t really read much into what he’s said. He still isn’t looking at me though, and that speaks volumes more than words could. “Someone got in ahead of me and made the deal before I could.”

“Who?”

“Carmen Gallagher.”

My stomach drops. He’s told me before that Gallagher Corporation is one of his biggest competitors in the telecommunications industry. He hadn’t cared much about the impressive amount of progress they’d made in their fiber optics technology in the last year because he’d had it set in his mind that he’d be moving on to fusion energy. Carmen could have the scraps he left behind. Now, he’s back to square one and the consequences of his inaction with Gallagher Corp. are proving to be more drastic than he had anticipated. That’s what I was seeing in Ros earlier, that’s what I’m seeing in him right now.

“I’m sorry, Christian,” I tell him meekly. He shakes his head.

“I don’t want to talk about it. I’d much rather hear about your morning. You spent all day yesterday worrying about your presentation, and you haven’t said a word about it.”

“Oh.” I bite my lip to try and reign in the victorious smile that nearly breaks my face in two every time I think about that meeting and how it had happened. Why it had happened… “Carmen approved the project. I thought I was dead in the water when I was going over the financials, but she went for it exactly as I proposed it.”

“Of course she did.” He grins at me like my success is his own. “Your idea is brilliant, Ana. Simple, useful, easily marketable. God, and to think I was this close to getting you to come back and work for me instead.” He holds his fingers up, only an inch apart. I grab his whole hand and bring it to my lips, kissing each one of his fingertips before pushing my hand into his.

“The best part was the way that it happened. She wasn’t sold so she asked my team what they thought and…. They stood up for me. They told her that they’d seen my methods work and it made them trust me. Even this guy who hated me when I first started. They convinced her to take a chance on me.”

“Because you’re an effective leader.” His grin widens again and as I blush into my napkin, he once again pulls my hands from my face and makes me look at him. “So, what are your next steps?”

“Uh… Abby is getting me the numbers for some app developers. I’ve got a budget of $80,000 to do the app redesign, so I need to find who will give me the most for that price.”

He shrugs. “What about me?”

“What?”

“Hire me. I can contract out my R&D department for your app design. Welch and Barney could have it done for you in less than thirty days, and I guarantee you they’ll give you a better product than anything else you’ll find out there. Especially for anything under six figures.”

“You would give me Welch?” I ask, dumbfounded. He shakes his head.

“I’m not giving you anything. For eighty grand, Grey Enterprises Holdings will design an application for Greenwich Small Press.”

“But we’re competitors…”

“No, Carmen and I are competitors. You and I, we’re a team. I want every success for you, baby. I want to watch you rise to the top of your industry and then rule over everything you’ve conquered like a queen. My queen. Even if that means I have to swallow my pride and let Gallagher claim the win alongside you. I can help you here. Besides, it’s mutually beneficial. I have an empty pipeline, remember?”

The silence grows louder as I chew over his proposal. I don’t know what there is to think about. Welch is the best there is. I’m not going to find anything even near the kind of quality he could give me for what I can offer in return. And I’ve worked with him before, so I know we can work well together. Communicate clearly. He’s the one person on the planet I would trust to take my vision and make it something concrete, exactly the way I’d imagined it to be. And Christian isn’t going to screw me over. If anything, hiring him means nothing will rest until I’m 100% satisfied.

“Alright,” I agree, at last. “I’ll send you over a proposal this afternoon.”

“I’ll be watching for it diligently.”

We clink our glasses together, and as I take a sip, I eye him curiously. From what I can tell, everything around him at work is falling apart. Everything he’s built, everything he’s sacrificed for, is all at risk because of one bad decision. I’ve read what they’re calling him in the papers, seen the accusations news pundits have hurled at him for being so careless with so many people’s jobs. But none of that leaks into this deal between us. He doesn’t let his resentment for Carmen interfere with my goals. He doesn’t care that my success in this instance could mean a crushing blow for his own printing press. He only cares about me. While he’s crashing down to earth in a flaming ball of disaster, he’s willing to let me be the rising star.

And that’s where I lose the last shred of self-control I have.

I practically leap from my seat to his lap. There’s still food in his mouth when I begin kissing him, but I don’t care. I pull away just long enough for him to swallow and attack him again. His hands position themselves on me like he’s going to move me away from him at first, then they clamp down on me like he’s never going to let me go. I grind on his lap, pushing my lips hard against his and burying my tongue deep in his mouth.

We’re interrupted by a knock on the door.

“I’m coming in there in ten seconds, Christian,” Ros’s voice sounds through the thick, oak barrier. “One, two, three…”

Christian lets out a deeply disappointed sigh, then moves me back into my chair before he turns an expectant gaze to the door just as Ros reaches “ten.”

She inches her way inside, peering carefully as though she’s afraid of what she might see, and is ready to slam the door shut in an instant if we hadn’t reacted to her warning. When she finds us sitting at the table together, she lets out a relieved breath and steps inside.

“It’s our anniversary, Ros. You’re treading on very dangerous territory interrupting me right now.”

“Funny, I said the same thing about you when you blew up our parking garage and drove our company into the ground.”

I flinch at the blunt honestly behind her words. Christian starts to shake. When he speaks, his voice is so low and even that it makes my hackles stand straight up.

“Rosaline…”

“We need to go over some financials,” she says. “I can’t do this without you, Christian, you’re the CEO. If you’re going to save your company, then this needs to be your priority right now. No matter what day it is.”

His jaw clenches, but I get up out of my chair and turn to kiss him on the cheek. “It’s fine. I’ve got to get back to the office anyway. But I’m taking these with me.” I pick up the carton of noodles and turn to pick up my things.

Christian’s eyes dart up to me and I can see in them how much he really doesn’t want me to leave, but he doesn’t say anything. He nods, then gets up and takes my hand, not even sparing a passing glance at Ros as he walks to me to the elevators. The kiss he gives me goodbye lasts long enough that Luke has to stand in front of the elevator doors to keep them from closing before I get in, and he pours so much emotion into that kiss that I almost change my mind and stay.

“I have reservations for us at seven,” he says, so close our lips brush together with each word. “I’ll pick you up from work at six-thirty.”

“I’ll be thinking of you until then.”

He moans and kisses me again. This time, I’m the one who has to be strong enough to break the kiss and when I pull away, he clings to my fingers until they slip from his grip. My heart seems to fall at the same rate as the elevator.

“Everything alright?” Luke checks.

“No, not really. But he’ll figure it out. He always does.”

Christian is true to his word. I leave my office at 6:29 and find him standing next to the Lamborghini in front of my office, arms crossed over his chest. He’s dressed in the same suit he was wearing earlier, despite the fact that Luke brought a short, black cocktail dress from my closet for me to change into half an hour ago. I nearly stumble in the stilettos I’ve hastily thrown on as I move towards the car, and both Luke and Christian reach out to catch me.

“I’ve got it, Sawyer,” Christian says, glaring sideways at my bodyguard. Luke takes it in stride.

“Sure thing, boss. She’s in your hands for the rest of the night.”

“You’re not coming with us?” I look around for the familiar SUV I assume will follow us to whatever restaurant we’re going to, but it’s not there.

“Nope, just you two love birds tonight.”

“Really?”

Luke grins and takes two steps back. “Have fun, you two. Make good choices. Use a condom.”

“Not a fucking chance,” Christian says under his breath, quiet enough that Luke can’t hear him. I roll my eyes at both of them, then wave at my best friend and step through the door Christian holds open for me. He’s sliding into the driver’s seat a few seconds later, and then we’re pulling into traffic, and making our way deeper into downtown. His hand clings to mine, absentmindedly playing with my wedding ring as he smoothly winds his way through the streets of Seattle. It’s quiet the entire drive, but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. It’s almost like a release. Like, after a long day, we both just need to sit and soak each other in for a while.

He takes me to a restaurant called 44, which is on the eponymous floor of a gigantic new skyscraper downtown. Though the restaurant itself is only a couple of months old, I’m already well aware of it’s reputation. Grace and Carrick waited six weeks to get a reservation, Kate and Elliot still haven’t been able to make one.

And Elliot designed the building the restaurant is in.

We pull into the valet and my door springs open for me. I step out, scanning the bushes for cameras and keeping my knees firmly pushed together as I climb out of the too low car. Christian hesitates before handing the keys over to the man working the valet.

“She’ll be in excellent hands, Mr. Grey. I assure you.”

“Uh huh…” He doesn’t sound sure, and his glare only intensifies when the keys are finally yanked out of his hand. Even when he comes around the car and pulls me into his arms, his eyes stay focused on the Lamborghini until it finally roars out of sight. I shake my head and grab onto his tie, dragging him into the building with me.

We take advantage of the empty elevator on our way up to the restaurant, trading flirty touches that verge all the way up to obscene by the time we make it to the 44th floor. I’m blushing as I walk hand in hand with Christian into the restaurant, but all the warmth bleeds out of me in an instant while we’re standing, waiting for the host, and I hear an unwelcome voice approach from inside the restaurant.

“Is that Grey?” It’s Bill Fitchett, a local real estate developer who we’ve met several times at the black tie functions I’ve had to accompany Christian to on behalf of GEH. My first impression of him was that he was a dick, but I’ve since refined that. The man is a complete fucking asshole.

Christian looks over at him and the fake smile he reserves for business associates moves across his lips. “Bill. How was your dinner?”

“Delicious. This place really is something else. I’m surprised to see you here, though.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, I thought you’d probably be somewhere more in your… price range. The Olive Garden, maybe?”

Christian’s face goes from pleasantly removed to savage in a blink. “Careful, Fitchett. My father’s administration has just proposed new housing policies that’ll run slumlords like you out of this city forever. Where do you think you’ll eat then?” 

The man grins wickedly. “You think I’m afraid of Carrick Grey? The man’s a laughing stock after you beat his failed tax hike. But hey, like father like son, am I right?”

Christian takes a step towards him, his face more menacing than I’ve seen it when I wasn’t in immediate danger. His cold eyes fall on the smaller man, and his voice drops so deep that it sends a chill over my arms, and leaves me with goosebumps.

“Yes. Like father, like son. And once he’s thrown you out like the fucking trash you are, I’ll buy everything you’ve ever worked for and dismantle it piece by piece.” 

“That’s an awfully loud bark for a dog who doesn’t have any bite anymore.”

Christian’s face breaks into the kind of unnerving, devilish smile that leaves the promise of calamity tattooed on your soul. “I’ll see you around, Fitchett.” He turns and nods casually to the host, then reaches back for me.  Bill stares vindictively after us as Chrisitan pulls me into the restaurant.

“You want me to hold him down and you can punch him?” I ask, skipping up to Christian’s side. He actually grins down at me.

“As much as I’d love to remove that man from a few of his teeth, he’s not really worth it. Besides, once I’m back on top, he’ll be one of the first people who gets a reminder of exactly who I am.”

“One of the first?”

“Oh, I have a list.”

My lips press together nervously. “Is… Carmen on that list?”

“Several times.” I glance up at him in alarm, but he assuages my concerns with a joking smile and pushes me into the dining room. The host tries to pull my seat out for me, but Christian shoos him away the second his hand comes to rest on the back of my chair. The wine has been pre-ordered, so he pours us each a glass before settling down into the seat across from me.

“To the happiness we haven’t even had the chance to experience yet,” Christian says, raising his glass in the air. “I can’t wait for every second of the future I get to spend with you, Anastasia.”

I’m floating out of my seat as I clink the rim of my glass against his. It’s like we’re in a magical room that has the power to erase everything outside it’s four walls. I forget about the food we’ve ordered the moment the waiter disappears through the doors because I’m so lost in Christian’s, eyes and the love that’s shining through them.

We talk a little more about my new project over our entrees and while he won’t give me any advice, I hope to at least read his response to all the ideas I have for the future, once this subscription service is completely solvent. For the most part, he’s completely stoic. But I manage to get the smallest hint of a reaction out of him when I suggest networking with companies who produce textbooks that we could then contract though universities, so I make a note to look more seriously into that later. All thoughts of work soon melt away though as we both lose ourselves in the delicious food and drink. When the waiter finally returns, Christian and I are pushed as closely together as our chairs will allow and he has me nibbling off the end of his fork.

“Can I get you anything for dessert?” The waiter asks, smiling warmly at the obvious affection being exchanged between us. I shake my head.

“It was all very delicious, but I don’t think I could possibly eat one more bite.”

“Then she’ll take the chocolate mousse home,” Christian adds. The waiter nods and ducks out of the room, while I turn a questioning gaze on my husband.

“I will?”

“My mother said it was to die for and you might want something sweet later on.”

“And if I don’t?”

He smirks. “Then I’ll eat it off you when you start begging for my cock tonight.”

I shiver and bite down hard on my lower lip. My chest flames with heat that leaks steadily down into my pelvis. Christian’s eyes narrow in on my mouth. The way he stares at my lips, the burning desire I see reflected there as he does, makes staying planted in my seat a gargantuan task I’d be willing to equate with summiting Everest.

“A thing I’m never going to get to do, because you had to order the goddamn dessert.” The need I feel for him is wrapped so tightly around each word that they come out in barely more than a whisper. His eyes flick quickly down below the table, at my thighs pressing together, and then move back to mine.

“Patience, my love. You know what happens when you get greedy…”

He’ll just make me wait longer

A vision of being tied down to our bed and beyond desperate to come while he drives me further insane licking chocolate mousse off my nipples runs through my mind. It almost makes me whine. We don’t have to worry about waking Calliope, so he doesn’t have to worry about holding back. If he wants to make me beg, he’ll draw it out until I’m screaming for it. 

I give him a spiteful look but shift in my chair to try and get a hold of myself. He watches as my body releases the building tension with each deep breath I take, seemingly not pleased that I’m able to regain control so quickly, then leans in and kisses me deeply until the waiter returns with the mousse.

After that, I would have sprinted to the car if Christian weren’t holding me back like an anchor.

It takes way too long for the valet to return with the Lamborghini, and then much longer as Christian paces around the car to make sure there’s no damage. He at least has the decency to over tip once he finds the car in the same immaculate condition he’d left it in. Once we’re pulling away from the hotel, I reach over and drag my hand up his thigh.

“Take me home.” It’s a plea, and one he doesn’t seem to want to indulge. He stares out at the brake lights blinking red back at us over and over again, like he’s considering something.

“You wanna have a quarter-life crisis with me?” he asks, turning a playful smile in my direction. I give him a skeptical look, but one that says I’m willing to go with the joke, if that’s what this is.

“What do you mean?”

He merely wags his eyebrows at me, then turns his attention back to the road. I expect him to merge left to get on the freeway, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even go right at Pioneer Square, which would take us to any trendy club or bar he might want to go be stupid in. Instead, he stays on 2nd until it merges into 4th, and we end up in the seedy part of town where we’d once busted up Elena’s nightclub. I doubt our security team would be too pleased if they knew we were down here unaccompanied.

“You’re not going to try and like… buy ecstasy off someone, are you?” I ask, dubiously. He makes a disgusted face.

“No.”

“Then why are we—“ My words come to an abrupt halt when Christian makes a sharp left turn across the street and we pull up in front of a sleazy looking tattoo parlor.

“You wouldn’t let me get you a gift,” he says, that mischievous smile right back in place as he reaches for the door. My eyes widen in panic.

“You’re going to get a tattoo?!”

He doesn’t answer me. He climbs out of the car and slams the door behind him. I try my best to follow, but the butterfly doors are a little too tall for me, so it takes me a second to step up on the car and reach across for the handle. By the time I get the door down, he’s already inside talking to the girl standing behind the counter, who looks like a dead ringer for Bettie Page.

I yank back the door and hurry to his side.

“This her?” the girl asks. Christian nods and she slides a book towards me. “Pick a font, sweetheart.”

“For what?”

“Your name,” Christian replies, and my mouth pops open.

“You’re not serious.”

“Oh, I’m dead serious.” He grins and I shake my head.

“You are the CEO of an multinational corporation, you can’t have tattoos!” I throw my arms open, as if to emphasize how obvious the point should have been, but he reaches past me and taps his finger on one of the loopy-cursive fonts near the top.

“I think I like this one.”

“Christian!”

He taps the font again, this time making eye contact with the tattoo artist. She nods and picks up the book, then draws my name on a piece of paper and shows it to him.

“Like that?’

“Perfect.” He turns back to me. “What do you think? The classic: over the bicep? On my side? Across my heart?”

He’s really going to do this. I can see it now, in the determined glint shining behind his eyes. No matter what I say, no matter how logical or realistic my arguments are, he’s going to get a tattoo tonight.

Quarter-life crisis indeed.

“Well… somewhere you can hide it,” I say nervously. He shakes his head.

“If you think I’m going to put your name on my skin just to hide it, you’re missing the point entirely. I want people to see it. I’d get it across my forehead if it made you happy.”

I laugh, despite myself, then chew nervously on my lip. If he’s going to do this, I should at least think about where I’m going to want to see my name looking up at me for the rest of my life. I don’t like the idea of his side or his bicep. Across the heart has merit, it’s romantic at the very least. But if I had to pick my favorite part of him, a place I’d really like to brand…

“Here.” I trace my hands up his jacket from his wrist to his elbow.

“My forearm?”

“I always think it’s really sexy when you’re wearing a button down and you push your sleeves up. I like this part of you. Besides, you’ll never be able to jack off again without seeing my name.”

“Forearm it is,” he says with a laugh, then we follow the tattoo artist into the back where she directs Christian into a black, leather chair. I watch anxiously while she presses the paper into his skin and it leaves the stencil of the word she’s about to put there forever. Christian seems completely at ease.

“That blue there,” he says, pointing to the vials of color she presents to him. “It’s the same color as her eyes.”

“Sure thing, stud,” the tattoo artist says. Christian takes my hand while she positions his arm on the table, then presses the needle against him. He winces and my heart starts thundering in my chest.

This is actually fucking happening.

“Is it awful?” I ask. He shrugs.

“It doesn’t feel great, but it’s bearable.”

“Yeah, but you’re half masochist.” I roll my eyes and the artist chuckles as she swoops the tattoo pen around the loopy letters of my name. It only takes a minute or two. Then she’s swiping a cleansing towelette over the blue letters to clean away the blood, and it’s there.

My name. In ink. Forever.

It’s insane how much I actually love seeing it there.

“Oh my god, Christian. I can’t believe you actually just did that…”

“I can. I absolutely love it.”

“Glad to hear it,” the tattoo artist says, swiveling back towards us in her chair. “Here’s your card back, handsome. I just need an autograph.”

Christian takes the receipt she hands him and tips her triple the cost of the tattoo before he tucks his card back in his wallet. She grins and looks up at me.

“What about you, sweetheart? Gonna let him show you up or can I ink you too?”

“No,” Christian says with finality as he gets out of the chair. I blink back at him.

“Um, excuse me? You didn’t ask for my permission before you came in here and made permanent decisions about your body.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“So why do I need yours?”

“Because that’s the way we work, my love.”

I roll my eyes. “You can’t tell me you wouldn’t love to put your name on me permanently. I could put it right on my ass.” I turn around, wiggling suggestively, but he doesn’t even falter.

“Not gonna happen.”

“Pity. The ultimate claim and Christian Grey doesn’t want to make it?” I should care more that the tattoo artist is sitting there, staring at us with complete interest, but I don’t. And apparently, neither does Christian.

“The only marks I want to see on you, Anastasia, are the ones I put there myself.”

“Kinky,” the artist giggles. We both finally glance at her, then Christian tugs me back out to the front of the store. I stop and wrench my hand out of his.

“No, I don’t think I’m quite ready to leave.” I turn back and when Christian calls after me, I close the door and lock it so he can’t get in. He starts knocking a few seconds later, and the tattoo artist smiles at me.

“And I thought it was going to be a boring Monday night. Glad I was wrong.” She laughs. “Turn around and drop ‘em, girl.”

“Oh, I’m not actually getting a tattoo on my ass,” I admit. “This is all just a small little bluff to get him worked up a little before we go home.” She gives me a sweet smile and waves me over.

“Don’t be nervous, babydoll. We’ll do it quick, you’ll barely feel a thing.”

“I’m not nervous, I’m just… shocked, actually. You have no idea how out of character this is for him.”

“It’s not crazy, it’s expression. That dude in there, he’s got it bad for you, beautiful. He wanted to show that to you. Don’t you wanna show him?” She gets up and pulls me into the chair I didn’t actually take when she’d motioned for me to, and gives me a warm, understanding look. “I get it, you’re not ready for serious ink. We can do something small, something no one will ever notice.”

“I don’t know, I…” I sit up, using the arms of the chair to lift myself up, and the light catches my wedding ring. I stare at it for a moment, then pull it off and slip it onto the ring finger of my right hand instead.

“Do you think you could put his initials here?” I ask, and she waves at me like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

“No problem, it’ll take me 30 seconds. You want the same blue?”

“Uh, maybe gray.”

She nods and gives me a few choices. I pick a dark, charcoal color that’s almost black, and she loads up a fresh needle and cleans my skin.

“Anastasia!” Christian shouts through the door. I look down at her and nod.

“Deep breath,” she tells me, then I feel the needle. It’s sharp at first, but it’s not as terrible as I’d built it up to be. In fact, I’m more annoyed by it than I’m feeling any actual pain. And not thirty seconds after she started, she’s wiping me clean.

“Oh my god,” I say, smiling down at the CTG across my ring finger. It is small, but I fall in love with it instantly. Seeing his initials on me, knowing they’ll never wash away… it’s probably a good thing I’d locked Christian out or the tattoo artist might be getting an x-rated showing right about now. 

“On the house,” the artist says. “Or just included in that massive tip your husband just left me.”

“Thanks.” I tell her, then I hop out of the chair and unlock the door to face the angry bear on the other side.

“What did you do?” he demands the instant I pry the door back. I hold up my hand, sticking up my ring finger like I’m flipping him off. At first, all of the muscles across his body seem to tighten at once. But the longer he looks at it, the more he softens. Except his eyes. His eyes only grow more intense. When they finally move away from my new tattoo to my eyes, it’s like I’m looking into the depths of a violent storm. 

Oh hello, Sir. 

“Go get in the car,” he tells me in a husky voice that has a direct line to my libido. I nod and hurry for the door.

This time, Christian’s there to help me with the door to the Lamborghini. He’s quick and efficient getting me closed inside and then moving around the car to join me. We practically peel out of the parking lot, and before we’ve even hit the freeway, my hands are untwisting his belt.

“Show it to me again. Oh fuck, Ana…” He groans as I flash him my hand, then lean over and take his cock in my mouth. His hands tighten on the steering wheel while my lips tighten around his shaft and the engine roars louder as he flies up the highway. I hold him at the base of his now fully hard erection and suck him like he’s paying me for it. He grunts with each pull of my lips, each countering tug of my hand. I set to work on him with only one goal in mind, driving him absolutely wild. With my tongue, with my lips… I play with the lines of his cock and use my throat to tease his crown. I never let up the entire way, and by the time he takes the exit for our house, his hand twists in my hair and he’s tearing me off of him.

“Anymore and you’re going to get us killed,” he growls, the need I’ve awaken in him boiling at the surface. I pant with want just looking at him, and when he stops at the red light at the end of the exit, I lunge for his lips.

The rest of the drive home goes much the same. Both of us sitting in frustration until he has an excuse to stop the car for long enough that we can attack each other again. When we do finally pull in the garage, Christian doesn’t even bother closing the doors to the car before he’s pulling me up into his arms and carrying me into the house.

Somehow, we make it to the bedroom and all the promises he made to me this afternoon for the kinky night we would share together go right out the window. He falls onto the bed while still clutching me to him. There’s no time to plan or stop, there’s only him and the mass of his body that I need to touch as thoroughly as possible. He strips me out of my dress, kissing and licking me wherever he ends up. My shoulder, my elbow, my breasts, my stomach… He pulls the dress all the way off of me, then offers none of that patience to my panties. I actually yelp in pain as he rips them apart and yanks them off of me, but that yelp is quickly smothered by his lips.

“Fuck me, Christian. I can’t wait anymore, please…” He doesn’t need to be asked twice. Without even bothering to check if I’m ready for him, he plunges inside of me. I am ready though, so unbelievably ready, and he slides against me like steel against satin. “Oh, god!”

“Always wet for me,” he groans in wonder through his deep, harsh thrusts. I bounce with him, keening more and more each time he slams into me.

“Only for you. Always for you.” I stretch my body out under him, trying to press as much of myself into him without hindering him at all. He responds in kind. His hands move over every inch of me, greedily. He wraps my legs around him and moves so deep inside of me, it’s like he’s searching for unchartered territory. The powerful but steady pace he keeps up drives me closer and closer to orgasm, and it’s not just because everything he does feels so incredible. It’s because I can feel his love pouring into me with every push and pull. With every tender caress of his finger tips, or soft whisper of his lips. 

I cling to him, looking over at his new tattoo and feeling the same overwhelming sense of satisfaction that it’s there. It’s a feeling I can lose myself in, and when I do, my nails begin to scrape harshly down his back. He grunts, and his thrusts are thrown off kilter. For half a second, his control falters. Because of me. Because I do things to him that are sometimes overwhelming, the way he’s constantly overwhelming me. And that is enough to set me off.

“Christian!” His name comes out so loud, it reverberates around the room. He swims in it. Coaxes it out of me again and again as he drives into me without mercy. Not long after my first orgasm dissipates, the second one starts. My whole body starts to quake, my eyes roll back in my head. The pleasure is so intense, I can’t even get his name out anymore. I can’t say anything coherent. It doesn’t even matter. My body tells him everything I can’t communicate, and he orders the third orgasm from me as easily as he ordered our dinner this evening.

“Fuck!” I’ve tumbled back to earth again, but he’s already got me climbing. It’s mind boggling. Endless. I’m nearly on the edge of ruin and I don’t think I’ll be able to find my way back. “Please, Christian. I can’t… I can’t…”

“I want one more,” he breathes into the curve of my neck. “Come for me one more time, Ana. Come with me.”

I nod, fearing what he’s asking might actually break my psyche, but there’s nothing in me that wants to deny him. That even could deny him if I did want to. When he talks about owning me, it’s not metaphorical. My body responds to him in a way I have no control over, and the moment he makes his demands for more, I’ve already started to comply. I’m on the edge now, just one more perfect brush of his cock against my g-spot…

“OH! GOD!” It rips through me with the same ferocity he ripped away my panties. I arch high off the bed, feeling as though I’m levitating with the near gravitational force that’s pulsating through me. Christian’s face tightens, my walls clamping around him too tightly now for him to keep up his ruthless pace. He thrusts two more times, then lets out a strangled shout and stills deep inside of me.

I collapse on the bed, panting, being crushed beneath his weight and not finding it in me at all to care. He could smother me and, after what he’d just given me, it wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

“I love you,” I whisper, because that’s all I can do. He moans and moves his mouth to mine, kissing me deep and with long, languorous strokes of his tongue. I melt in the bed beneath him, perfectly content to let his kiss lull me off into a now much needed sleep. But suddenly, he stops. His lips freeze against mine and his entire body goes rigid.

“Christian?” I check. “Are you okay?”

He holds a hand up to silence me, and his eyes start darting back and forth like he’s trying to work through a difficult problem very quickly. 

“What are you…?”

“I need a chemist,” he interrupts, then he leaps out of bed and disappears through our bedroom door.

Next Chapter

Chapter 30

I wake up Monday morning with Christian’s head between my thighs. His tongue caresses my clit with long, velvety strokes that send tingles down my legs. His lips close, he starts to suck, and I see stars. I make a deep, throaty sound that I wouldn’t think could ever be considered sexy, but it drives him wild. He feeds on me like I’m dripping nectar so sweet, it’s not meant for mortal man, and he’s somehow cheated the gods. I reach down and twist my fingers into his hair and push up to encourage his mouth. 

“Just like that, just like that…” A finger breaks through my lower lips, massaging that perfect spot inside of me until I’m panting his name. A second finger joins the first and my legs start to shake. 

“That’s right,” Christian growls against me. “Tremble for me.” 

“I’m about to come for you,” I breathe back. I can feel it coming and I know it’ll hit me hard. Even the foreshock feels like enough to swallow me the way nighttime swallows dusk. My back arches high off the bed and I squirm, trying to pull back from his intensity. His hands lock down on my hips to hold me in place. He adds a third finger and starts fucking me in earnest, keeping pace with his tongue on my clit. 

I half-sob when my orgasm finally overwhelms me. It rips through me so intensely, for a few moments I think the fireworks bursting before my eyes might actually be the start of the bright white light that will lead me into the afterlife. Christian continues to lap at me, kiss me, ease me down from the pleasure after drawing it out longer than should have been humanly possible. When the last shudder works its way from my system, he moves up my body and claims my mouth. 

“Happy anniversary,” he says, a heady cocktail of want and adoration swimming in his eyes. 

“I’ll say.” I grab his face and kiss him hard, purposefully dragging my tongue over his chin to clean away the last of my release from his skin. It’s smoother than I expect… has he already shaved?

“None of that,” he chides me, though his tone actually tells me what he wants is much much more of that. He pulls away and I notice for the first time that he’s already completely dressed. 

“Where are you going?” 

“I have an early meeting, remember?” 

“And you didn’t plan in time for… for…” My cheeks pink and he chuckles. 

“No. But I was watching you sleep while I was getting ready to leave and I decided that I just couldn’t start the day without making you come first.” He rolls off the bed and straightens his tie, looking very pleased with himself. “Have lunch with me this afternoon.” 

I frown. He can’t really be leaving, can he?

“Don’t you want some kind of reciprocation?” 

“Why do you think I asked you to lunch?” I can tell by his grin that he’s joking, but I’m not. He’s going to work me up like that and then leave without even giving me a taste of his cock? It’s a bum deal. 

“I want you now.” My eyes lock with his and I make a big show of rubbing my thighs together under the sheets. His grin disappears, changing instead to something darker. Something hotter. 

“Later,” he promises. “I’ll make you come until you can’t stand it anymore.” 

“Empty promises. Actions speak louder than words, you know.” 

He laughs, but the sound cuts off as his phone starts to ring. “Good luck with your presentation this morning, Ana. I knew you’d figure this out and even I’m floored by what you’ve come up with. Carmen Gallagher won’t know what hit her.” 

“I hope you’re right.” 

He winks as he answers the phone, then his eyes hold mine intently for a long moment, reiterating the promise he’d made me about lunch earlier. “I’m on my way, Ros. Twenty minutes.” 

He disappears through the doorway, and I glare at the emptiness he leaves behind. It’s not that much earlier than when I normally wake up, so there’s not really any point in trying to go back to sleep. But I’m definitely not ready to get up, shower, and obsess over everything that could go wrong with the presentation I have to give to the entire staff today. So, instead, I reach over for my phone, call Christian’s direct line at his office, and masturbate into his voicemail. I describe every single thing I’m doing and thinking about in graphic detail until I scream his name through the phone. 

Let’s see if he regrets leaving me this morning after hearing that. 

Grace stops by and collects Calliope before I’ve even have a chance to blowdry my hair. My sleepy girl cuddles around her grandma when she lifts her out of the crib, and Grace practically becomes a puddle on the floor. 

“If you and Chrisitan decide you need more than one night, you let me know,” she says, quietly so she doesn’t wake Calliope. My face brightens with appreciation, even though I know the offer is really a selfish one. 

“Thank you, but I think tonight is just about all I’ll be able to stand to be away from her.” 

Because otherwise I’ll just be alone. 

I think Grace sees the thought flash through my eyes, because she shakes her head and places a gentle hand on my arm. “You’re both working too hard.” 

That isn’t true. Okay, so I spend nearly every waking second obsessing over whether or not my latest idea will be enough to float the entire company long enough for me to find the best-seller The Black Rose was supposed to be, and I’ve taken to reading manuscripts in the car, and trolling online writing forums on my phone while I’m in the bathroom… Maybe I’ve wished more than one time that I could dream my way through my work while I slept so I wouldn’t lose so much time out of every day…

But Christian spends more time at GEH nowadays than he does at home. 

I don’t want to argue about any of that with Grace, though, so I simply accept her words with a chastened nod and walk her out. 

“When are we headed out, boss?” Luke asks, stepping out of the security office the moment I’ve closed the door behind Grace. His eyes look at my still damp hair and the robe tied at my waist. “I’m going to guess it’s gonna be awhile.” 

“I’ll be fast. Do you want breakfast before we go or do you wanna get a bagel and coffee on the way?” 

He rolls his eyes. “As if you have any say in what’s going to happen to you for the rest of the day.” 

“What is that supposed to mean?” I put my hands on my hips, planning to fight him if he’s going to go full CPO-mode on me. He gives me a look in return that tells me I’m missing something that should be obvious. 

“It’s your anniversary, Ana. Your first one. I know both you and Grey are dealing with some serious shit at work, bad enough that he didn’t even take the day to be with you. But if you think he hasn’t set up an entire day’s worth of stuff for you to melt and fawn over until he can get to you, then I feel like you don’t actually know your husband at all, and your entire marriage is a sham.” 

I ignore that last part because now that he’s mentioned it, it’s ridiculous that I would expect anything less from the amazing man I should have fought harder to keep in my bed this morning. Instead, I zero in on two specific words. 

“Melt and fawn, huh?” My smile stretches to its limits when he nods. 

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of sappy, romantic shit waiting for you. Honestly, it’s nauseating.”

My breath catches in surprise at his statement and then my gut clenches painfully as I realize the reason why. He’s going to have to follow me around all day, having the love Chrisitan and I feel for one another shoved in his face over and over again, all while he’s still nursing a broken heart. 

“If you’re uncomfortable, Luke, I can manage without you for a day. I know you’re still hurting over Jade.” 

He grimaces. “You’re not going into the city without security. Absolutely not.” 

Well, duh. “No, but I can call Taylor.”  

“Ouch.” He pulls his hand up to his chest and takes a step back. “Am I really so easily replaced for you, Anastasia?” 

I shove him in exasperation, but laugh when he starts to. “I think we’ve proved over and over again that you are irreplaceable, Luke Sawyer. But I care about your feelings and I don’t want to see you in pain.” 

“Then you should know that there is no place I’d rather be than with you.” He gives me a yeah-that’s-right-now-don’t-you-feel-terrible-for-trying-to-send-me-away look and takes a step out of my reach. “Because making fun of you every single time you cry is going to be the highlight of my day.” 

He expects a huffy reaction, but I simply shrug. “Have at it. Knowing Christian, I’ll be too busy glowing to notice.” 

“Ugh, you’re already gross.” 

I flash him another smile. “Twenty minutes and I’ll be ready to go.” 

My first surprise is a playlist of songs Christian has made for me to listen to on my way to work. The note Luke hands me tells me that each song is one that makes him think of me. As we pull out of the driveway and the car fills with music, a smile sets on my face and doesn’t move for the entire drive. Some of the songs I know the meaning of the second I hear them. Like, At Last, the song we danced to at our wedding. Others, I can only guess at their significance by listening carefully to the lyrics. There are even a few songs in French that are a mystery to me altogether, except that I can hear the intent behind the sweet lilt in each artist’s voice. 

We are welcomed into the parking garage next to GSP by the final bars of Journey’s, Faithfully, and I’m swimming in tears. 

“Don’t break now, Steele,” Luke teases me. “You’re not even inside yet.” I reach up and dab the corners of my eyes, still unable to wipe the smile from my face. 

“Ugh, he would do this to me on the day I have to give a career making presentation to make.” 

“Romance or corporate sabotage? Christian Grey can do both.” We both laugh and it continues all the way into my office. 

“Good morning, Ana,” Abby greets me. “Happy Anniversary!” 

“Thank you. Any messages?” 

“Yes, your husband’s office called to schedule a 12:30 lunch and Ms. Gallagher confirmed she will be on today’s call with the New York team.”

I suck in a sharp breath through my nose. It’s good news, necessary actually, but that doesn’t alleviate any of my nerves. 

She wanted something radical…

“Confirm lunch with Christian,” I tell her. “I’ve got a few things left to finish before our meeting later this morning. Hold my calls until then. Unless it’s Carmen… or Christian.” 

“Sure thing, Ana.” She smiles, then turns on her heel and walks back to reception while I continue on to my office. There’s a giant bouquet waiting for me on my desk. I saunter towards it, searching through the deep red petals for a card. As I pluck it out, I bury my nose into the fragrant petals. They smell incredible.

I don’t know what you’re wearing, but I know you look absolutely beautiful this morning.

I love you

Christian  

I smile down at the words, my heart fluttering wildly. I wish desperately that he was close enough right then for me to kiss, or maybe even to drag to the nearest flat surface where I could take from him what he denied me this morning. 

My eyes move to the clock on the wall. 08:56, a long way off from 12:30. But not long enough until my meeting. With one last deep inhale of the flowers, I settle down in my chair. As has become usual since I’ve taken on the New York branch, my inbox is overflowing with manuscripts from my editors looking for approval. I ignore all of them.

There are a few emails that need my attention right away, but it doesn’t take me long to work through everything that’s important. I’m just about to close out of my email altogether when I notice one from Christian buried in between two from the New York office, early this morning. 


From: Christian Grey

Date: July 23rd 2012  07:58 AM

Subject: Lewd Voicemails

To: Anastasia Grey

I am going into a meeting and I’m hard. You should expect to be spending a good amount of time this afternoon over my knee to make up for it. And once I’m finished with that gorgeous ass of yours, I’m going to lay you over my desk and fucking worship you.

Christian Grey

Sexually Frustrated and Painfully Erect CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings


From: Anastasia Grey

Date: July 23rd 2012

Subject: Unexpected Wonders

To: Christian Grey

Well, I’ve spent the morning crying over all the amazingly sweet things you’ve done for me. And I think the roses on my desk are very closely verging on a gift, despite a very specific agreement between you and I that we wouldn’t be doing that this year…

Anastasia Grey

Completely Wooed Editor-In-Chief, Greenwich Small Press


“Hey, Ana,” Abby says, poking her head in the door. “You’ve got a delivery.”

“Oh?” She opens the door further and holds up another absolutely stunning bouquet of flowers. Peonies this time, in my favorite shade of soft pink. Abby places them next to the roses on my desk and beams. 

“The roses got here at eight, same time as me. I bet you’re going to get a new delivery every hour, on the hour!” 

“Sounds like something he would do.” I can’t help but smile, even as I shake my head at the absolutely ridiculousness of the man I married exactly one year ago today. Abby backs out of my office again, leaving me punch drunk and floating. 

I need to focus, but when I look back at my email, there’s a response from Christian waiting. 


From: Christian Grey

Date: July 23rd 2012  09:04 AM

Subject: Reparations, choose your own adventure.

To: Anastasia Grey

Let’s agree to call it even. Or better yet, let me make it up to you over, and over, and over…

Christian Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings


I want to rejoice in his good mood, spend my morning bantering with him and basking in his attention since he’s been so distracted lately. But he’s busy and I’ve got a lot of work to get done in the next hour. As much as it kills me, I don’t reply to the email. Instead, I turn my attention to the documents I’d been working on the night before and let myself completely check out of everything else.

When it’s finally time for me to make my way to the conference room, I find my team has already assembled there. I haven’t had the chance to see any of them yet this morning, so we start off with a few pleasantries and share details of our weekends. I’m just about to dial in to the New York office when I’m stopped by an unexpected knock on the door. 

I look up and see Olivia, Christian’s receptionist, standing there.

“I’m looking for a…” She looks at a piece of paper in her hand. “Anastasia Grey?” 

I tilt my head as I blink back at her, confused by how unnatural my name sounds rolling off her tongue. Like she’s never said it before. “Yes?” 

She nods, turns around, and disappears for a few seconds, then returns with boxes of doughnuts and coffee. The good kind, from the fancy bakery up the street. My confusion deepens, so Olivia holds the sheet of paper she’d read my name off of earlier. 

“Your receipt, Mrs. Grey.” 

Except it isn’t a receipt at all. It’s a note written in an immediately recognizable handwriting. 

It never hurts to get them on your side before proposing something big. Well fed people are generally more amenable people. 

Now go knock ‘em fucking dead.

I believe in you, too.

My heartbeat quickens with yet another dose of love as I glance around the table and get several grateful looks from my employees diving into the doughnuts. Even Stevens looks not-irritated with me as he takes a welcome sip of coffee. 

Well, fuck. If I knew it would be this easy to win them over, I would have brought breakfast with me every morning.

Touche, Mr. Grey.

“Thank you,” I tell Olivia, and she winks at me before hurrying out of the room. I reach down and dial the conference call number for New York. The other team pops up on the TV screen mounted to the wall, and, again, we’re met with warm greetings of welcome. It’s strange because the two branches have very little interaction with one another, so no one is really familiar enough with each other for me to expect such openly friendly attitudes in a professional setting. But Carmen is on the call, and I think several of my employees might be a little overzealous in their attempts to impress her. 

“Alright, let’s get any outstanding items from the frontlist out of the way. We’ll start with Seattle.”

It’s a short discussion since the only titles we currently have to talk about are the ones that were already in production before Carmen gave me one last big release. Even after working through a marketing issue with one of my employees in New York, only the first twenty minutes of our hour long meeting have passed. It gives me plenty of time to present my idea to the team, and talk it out with them once the questions and doubts start. Unfortunately, the butterflies in my stomach have turned to bats. 

“Our next item for discussion is a big one, and I don’t want any of you to panic when I say what I’m about to say.” Eight people shift uncomfortably in their seats around me. I take a breath and brace myself. “I want to shut down the New York printing press.” 

“What!” The roar comes from the TV speakers. The only reaction I get from the people in the room with me are blank stares and open mouths. 

“I said don’t panic,” I repeat, keeping my voice light and confident. Not like I’ve said something that probably has half my team thinking they’re losing their jobs. I clear that up first. “No one is losing their job. New York will simply be stopping all production on print media.” 

The idea came to me over the weekend when Luke and I were hanging out, scrolling through Netflix, and he’d noticed a show he liked had a new season come out and he’d missed it. I listened to him grumble about how they should have some kind of subscription service to follow certain shows, like a YouTube channel. Once I reminded him that Netflix was a subscription service, it hit me. I didn’t need to move 50,000 units with one title, I needed to come up with something that would continuously bring in revenue that was equivalent to 50,000 units. Netflix only releases a few titles a year, only updates their library once a month, and yet they float because their customers pay a monthly subscription fee. They don’t purchase the product directly. 

From there, my mind immediately went to the technology I’d developed for Grey Publishing two years earlier. A lot of their success has been their ability to cut overhead costs and reach a wider audience by pushing ebook sales through their tablet. Greenwich has an app of their own, a weak attempt by Carmen to respond to GP’s success, but it’s clunky and doesn’t have half the features or functionality that the Grey device does. 

Carmen doesn’t have Welch. 

The two ideas combined into one massive undertaking. “The Greenwich Library,” I tell my team, clicking the button on the remote to pop a presentation out from the faces of the New York office on the monitor. 

“It would be its own entity under the Greenwich Small Press umbrella, contained entirely within the New York office. Contracts would be different, royalties would pay differently, standards for publication would be… relaxed, but the consumer would have access to all of it, at all times, for the price of little more than a single ebook purchase. The library would update monthly at first, then weekly. It would be the New York office’s responsibility to publish that content.”

I move through the slides of my presentation that show data on ebook sales, and how those projected sales would affect our bottom line if even 3% of our customer base signed up for the service. “We’d have the ability to add classic titles that are no longer protected under copyright. In the future, there’s the possibility of specific sub-subscriptions. Book clubs, themed collection releases, textbooks… This gives us the opportunity to grow in a way we would never be able to if we stay tethered to the printing press.” 

Carmen cringes slightly when I pull up the financial plan, which breaks down how much it will cost to make this a reality and market it well enough to make it a success. But she doesn’t get up and walk out. That has to count for something, right? 

The question phase of the meeting is brutal. I’ve prepared, knowing how much this was going to scare everyone, but there’s only so much I can give them. I don’t have concrete data because this is unchartered territory. 

“Then how do you even know it will work?” a disgruntled woman from New York asks. I think her name is Margaret. 

“I don’t. I’ve just…” I pause, trying to explain why I am so certain this is the way forward. I end up quoting Christian. “It’s a feeling.” 

No one else says anything, so every pair of eyes, both here in Seattle with me, and in the room in New York, move to Carmen. 

“I want to hear more from the team,” she says. “Will it work?” 

Someone was going to have to come forward and express faith in me, and that made my heart heavy. Every step of the way my staff has fought my methods. I wasn’t going to hold my breath that any of them believed I could successfully change our entire business model. 

“I think it’s brilliant,” a voice in the room with me says. “It’s a good compromise between the volume our reader base has come to expect and the limitations of our press that make that model impossible. Honestly, it sounds to me like Ana has solved the problem that Scott never could.” 

It’s Stevens, the last person in the world I would ever expect to say something. And he’s only the first. 

“Ana was dead-on last time when she said we needed to change,” Jacki adds. “She was the only one who said The Black Rose wasn’t the best-seller we were looking for, and it was only because of her foresight that we survived that disaster. I trust her judgement.” 

“Me too.” 

“Me too.” 

The sentiment is repeated around the room like an outloud game of telephone that leaves me speechless. 

Thankfully, Carmen is the next to speak, so I don’t have to. “Then it sounds like this team has a lot of work ahead of them.” She gets up, straightening her skirt. “Ana, you’ll let me know what support you need from me, and we’ll come up with some timelines once you have everything ready?”

“Yeah,” I manage to say without completely losing my professional demeanor. “Thank-you, Carmen.” 

“I don’t want thanks, I want results. And don’t think this changes my expectations for a 50,000 copy release, Anastasia. That wasn’t a test for GSP, that was a test for you.” She opens the door and leaves me alone with my team. I try to ignore the dazed shock I feel at her parting words, and instead spend the next hour and a half brainstorming and assigning team roles. There are vendors I need to contact before we can get any further, so once everyone has a place to start, I end the meeting and walk back into the main office feeling ten feet tall. A feeling that is only made stronger when I see the two bouquet deliveries I’d missed during our meeting. 

“These wildflowers are incredible,” Abby says, twisting the cerulean colored vase in her hands while I pick up the Calla Lilies.

“Keep them here,” I offer, looking at the counter in front of her desk.

“Really?” 

“Sure.  I’m running low on space in my office anyway. “ She smiles and starts rearranging the reception desk to make room for the vase just as Luke starts towards me. 

“Your ride’s downstairs,” he says. I raise a confused eyebrow at him, but it doesn’t make him elaborate. In fact, he places his hand on my elbow and steers me to the door without saying another word. 

“I’ll be back in an hour, Abby. I need the number for that developer by the time I get back.” 

I’m out the door and almost in the elevator by the time I get my instructions out, so I don’t hear her confirmation. Faith is what carries me out of the building, where Taylor is waiting on the curb with the Maybach. 

“Mrs. Grey,” he greets me warmly, and the elation I feel from everything that’s happened  today is apparent in every syllable of my response. 

“Good afternoon, Taylor.” I slide into the back of the Maybach and find a note on the seat with a single red rose. 

Enjoy the show.

-Christian

I frown down at it, wondering if I’m not actually going to get to spend any time with him this afternoon. But as the car pulls away, the screen mounted on the back of the driver’s seat comes on and starts to play a video. My smile widens past the point that makes my cheeks ache when I see that it’s pictures and video clips from our wedding, set to the song I’d walked down the aisle to. Most of this must have come from Mia, because I haven’t seen any of it before. The song ends while we pull into the garage at GEH, and the video changes again. This time, to Christian standing with his father near the cliffside we were married on. Elliot’s voice is the first I hear, so he must be behind the camera. 

“She’s about to walk down here. You nervous there, bigshot?”

Christian turns to the camera with that smile he has that makes him the most beautiful man in the world. “What’s there to be nervous about? Happily ever after?” 

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