Chapter 38

I’m pulled from the blissful oblivion of a dreamless sleep by the touch of Christian’s lips against mine. The feel of him, the taste of his kiss, surrounds me in a warm familiarity that keeps the existential dread from the previous night at bay for a few euphoric seconds. I let my lips play gently against his for much too long, and hum with delight when he grows tired of my too soft kisses and presses deeply into me, his tongue gliding past my lips. The moment he pulls away though, his warmth disappears and the cold fear I’d had when I saw Calliope’s face plastered across the internet instantly fills the void he’s left behind.

I sit up at the uneasy clenching in my gut, then blink through heavy eyelids at the room around me in confusion. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was Natalia handing me my Starbucks order while I settled down in a seat next to Christian. Now I’m in the bedroom at the back of the jet, and I feel like I’ve been hit with a cement truck.

“You fell asleep almost the second you sat down,” Christian explains. “I thought you’d be more comfortable back here.”

That surprises me, considering I’d spent the entirety of last night pacing across our hotel room floor while Christian begged me to come to bed. I’d been too stressed to try. Even after my nap, I can still feel the grogginess of my sleepless night coming back to punish me. My body feels heavy and weak. My attention shifts, unfocused, between Christian and everything else around me. I’m unable to settle or concentrate on any one thing through the fog of exhaustion weighing me down. There’s a pounding headache growing behind my right ear. With a groan, I sink down into the warmth emanating from the blankets draped over me as if it has the power of a witch’s incantation, beckoning me back into obscurity.

“Can I just have another hour?” I mumble, already succumbing to the overpowering urge to drift off.

“We’re about to land. I want you to come sit in a chair with a seatbelt.”

That has my eyes snapping open again. “We’re already back to Seattle?”

He grins. “Yeah, you’ve been dead to the world for several hours. If it wasn’t for all the snoring, I probably would have made an emergency landing in Minneapolis to have your resuscitated.”

I narrow my eyes at him as I take his hand and, reluctantly, step out of the bed. “I don’t snore.”

“Okay, baby.” His tone is just a placation, and I’m about to argue back when I get a head rush that has me uneasy on my feet. Once again, I feel the burden of my exhaustion.

“What, did you drug me?” I shoot an accusatory glare at him, while his sure hands make me steady, but it only makes him laugh.

“If I did…” He presses his lips against mine, once. “You’d never be able to prove it.”

I roll my eyes as he tugs against my hand and leads me to the main cabin of the jet. Apparently he’s spent his time on the flight working, because the table surrounded by a cluster of chairs near the galley is covered in stacks of documents and an open laptop. I slump down into a seat and fasten the belt over my hips while Christian starts sliding his work into a briefcase to keep it safe during landing. Once the table is clear, his hand wraps around mine and he reaches a finger for my chin so he can tilt my face towards his.

“You’re very quiet.”

I shrug, and he takes a measured breath.

“Talk to me, Ana. I can’t do whatever it is you need me to do next if you don’t talk to me about what you’re feeling.”

His eyes are imploring for my response, but I don’t know how to voice aloud the thoughts bouncing around in my head to him anymore than I could to my father over the phone last night. Because the problem isn’t just that I’m scared about what will happen now that Calliope can be easily identified by someone who wanted to hurt me or Christian, my trust has been broken. And I trust my father more than anyone else in the world. Even Christian. Now, he’s… what? Betrayed me? 

That doesn’t even make sense, like the words can only be arranged in that order in some foreign language I don’t speak. I can’t reconcile having been so clear about never posting pictures of Calliope online with the photo I saw on my phone last night. Not even Kate has dared to try, and she posts literally every picture she takes straight to her PixC without a second thought. My dad is careful and deliberate in everything he does and says, and yet, the only thing I’ve heard from him about the post is his defense of Kim. Reading that Google Alert last night was like witnessing the incorruptible effigy that I’d built around him come crumbling to the ground, and now I’m left to wade through the rubble to find if any of it can be salvaged.

I need to have Calliope in my arms again before I can decide how that’s even possible.

“Ana?” Christian presses me. I turn back to look at him, seeing the ghost of the look that haunted me all those months I refused to deal with Lincoln swimming through his troubled gaze. The fear over what the internal battle I was waging would do to me, and frustration over my refusal to let him do anything about it. The hurt that I’d built the walls around myself too high for him scale. I don’t want to shut him out or put him through the pain I did before. It’s fear that makes me feel this way, my time with Flynn has taught me that, and Christian can assuage my fears better than anyone… So, I shift in my seat, moving as close to him as my seatbelt will allow, and I try.

“People want to hurt us, Christian.”

He takes a long, deep breath, swallows, then nods. “I know.” 

“Nothing would hurt me more than if something were to happen to her.”

“I know.”

And they know what to look for now!” My voice becomes sharp as tears well in my eyes, and I try to look away. His fingers move back to my face, forcing me to keep eye contact with him. “We have no idea who has that picture now and who they might have given it to. People could be out on the streets looking for her right now.

“And she’s back at the house with security.”

“It’s not just about today. It’s about every day now. We’re never going to be able to let our guard down again and-”

“Ana.” He shifts and takes my hands in his, holding my gaze as his lips press into each one of my fingers. “What can I do to make you feel safe?”

Kim’s face flashes before my eyes and I cringe at the bitter taste that creeps into my mouth. I flinch at the way my heart sputters over the pain she’s put between me and my dad. He was the one who stopped Lincoln. But he’s not around anymore and I can’t live through another person who needs to be stopped… I can’t.

My face crinkles with pain again, and Christian pulls me into his chest, letting my tears soak through his expensive shirt. 

“Please tell me what you’re feeling,” he whispers. 

I breathe in slowly, letting my lungs fill until the urge to sob stops and I can speak. Though, when I try, it’s weak at best. “Everyone thought I was being petty. Everyone thought I was being selfish. No one listened to me when I tried to say that Kim would be dangerous for our family. Now she’s opened the lid to something that can’t be closed again and I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how I’m going to live with it. My dad is my favorite person in the entire world, but right now…” 

Words fail me again because I have no idea how to finish that sentence. I don’t want to push my father away. I don’t want to fight with him. I don’t want to make him my enemy or even an antagonist. Even being plagued by these doubts feels disrespectful to the man who sacrificed everything to make my dreams come true.

But I have them, and they’re very real.

And it’s all because of her

“I don’t know,” I repeat, defeated. “I hate her, Christian. And now I don’t trust her. Now she’s making me doubt the one person I never thought I would.” 

“Okay, so…”

“No! Not okay. How do I tell my dad that without destroying him? How am I supposed to look him in the eye and tell him that this isn’t a mistake, it’s a betrayal? He’s my dad, Christian, and right now I don’t know how to talk to him at all. I have never had that problem.” 

I think about our phone conversation, and the ‘buts’ that followed every apology he offered. I have to swallow to bitter taste the memory dredges up. But that doesn’t change the way my heart pounds at the idea of doing anything to upset him or disappoint him. Or how angry that reaction makes me. Tears well in my eyes and I bury my face in my hands, shaking my head in despair. 

“I knew she couldn’t be trusted. I knew that she was going to tear us apart. Now what do I do?” 

He reaches over and takes my face in his hands, wiping away my tears. “You don’t need to do anything. We had a rule, they fucked up. If I’m the one that needs to step in and be the heavy so that we can resolve this, then that’s what I’m going to do.” 

I sniff, and take a broken breath. “You’re just very heavy, Christian.”

“He’s your father, Anastasia. I will make every attempt to keep a lid on my temper, I promise.”

Staring into his eyes, I try to find a hint of the feelings he’s burying beneath his concern for me. Is he scared the way I am? Is he boiling with rage underneath his seemingly calm exterior? Unleashing an angry Christian Grey on my father would be about as brutal as the Romans throwing people to the lions just to enjoy the bloodshed. But, no matter how hard I search his eyes or examine the line of his jaw for a hint of tension, there isn’t any of the expected fury looking back at me. He doesn’t even look worried.

“How are you so blasé about this? Aren’t you afraid someone will see her while we’re out in public and—“

“No,” he interrupts me. “I’m not afraid. You are protected, Anastasia. Calliope is protected. I’ve told you once, wars will be fought before anyone ever gets close to either of you again. I meant that, and I’ve made it a reality. Believe me when I tell you that no one will ever get to you or Calliope again.”

The first time he’d told me this, it had me worried. Now, it actually brings me a powerful sense of relief.

“Promise?” I breathe back.

“I promise,” he replies, firmly. The sentiment floats between us like an exorbitant prize, and I focus every cell in my body on accepting it. 

Even when I think I hear the echo of a cold, disembodied voice waking in the back of my mind that tells me I shouldn’t. 

The plane bounces roughly over the runway when we land, but it’s only a few minutes after that before we’re de-boarding. Mostly, Christian leaves everything behind as we’re only supposed to be making a short stop to pick up Calliope before continuing on to Beijing, but the thought of taking another trip right now, of taking Calliope out in public in a foreign country where my security team will already be at a disadvantage… it all has me feeling a little defeated.

I just need a few days at home with my baby.

“Welcome home, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor says, opening the door to the backseat of the SUV for me. I give him the warmest smile I can muster and brush an affectionate hand over the dark sleeve of his sports coat.

“Thank you, Taylor. How was the time you spent with your daughter?”

He smiles. “Much needed, thank you.”

“Was Sawyer abducted while we were gone?” Christian asks, peering through the darkly tinted windows of the front passenger’s seat. Taylor frowns and shakes his head.

“I’m not sure how he’s spent his days off but he failed to report this morning. I’ve talked to him, he’ll meet us back at the residence.”

“Failed to report?” Christian repeats. “He’s never failed to report. What was he doing?”

“I think the question is who was he doing,” I interject, as I climb into the backseat. I can hear Christian’s irritable sigh behind me, but whatever he says to Taylor next is too mumbled for me to catch. Then he’s in the seat next to me, pulling out his phone while Taylor settles in behind the wheel and drives us through the gates that will take us back to the freeway. The Bluetooth picks up Christian’s call before we’re even off the tarmac.

He spends the drive yelling at his lawyers. Unfortunately, there’s very little legal recourse we can take to stop the picture from floating around or even have what’s already posted taken down. We can issue cease and desist letters to the major publications who have pulled the photo from PixC, but we can’t sue someone for sharing a photo through the same social media site it was published on. And because both Christian and I were tagged, our combined followers have reposted the photo almost 3.2 million times.

“We can sue the person who posted the original photo,” the lawyer suggests. “It’s not going to stop it from being spread all across the internet, but we could get damages.”

“The person who posted it has nothing,” Christian grumbles. “We’d get nothing.”

“Well, then I would suggest the best course of action would be to… not post pictures of your child online.”

I snort. Christian nods to Taylor in the rear-view mirror, a signal to end the call.

“She’s safe,” he reassures me. “No matter what, she will always be safe.”

“I know.” My response is filled with audible dread, so he grabs my hand reassuringly and squeezes it tightly in his. I let the welcome sense of comfort wash through me each and every time his fingers pass over mine, then hold onto that security as we inch our way through our front gate. 

It’s once again surrounded by paparazzi. 

Taylor curses under his breath while the two men that have been haunting my house at every major event we’ve had over the past few weeks disperse the crowd enough to open a lane. I duck my face into Christian’s chest, trying to pretend I don’t see the flashes. Trying to pretend that each and every one of them doesn’t make me tremble with fear at who will see them or if any particular angle they capture will help someone find out exactly where we live and what time we got home. 

“We’re all safe,” Christian whispers, and he holds me as we finally make it into the driveway.

I’m slow to get out of the car once the garage door is closed behind us. I’m not particularly looking forward to the confrontation that’s about to take place, and if I wasn’t so desperate to get to my daughter, I don’t know that I would have gotten out of the SUV at all. Christian isn’t impatient though. He comes around to my side and opens my door, offering a hand to help me climb down from the too high seat. He doesn’t pull me after him the way I’ve become accustomed to. Instead, he lets me set the pace as we walk into the house.

Gail and Andrea are in the kitchen, Gail packing Calliope’s favorite snacks into small coolers for the almost twenty hour flight we’re supposed to take while Andrea takes inventory against her checklist. Christian doesn’t acknowledge either of them. Instead, he stays calm and silent until we emerge in the living room where Kim and my dad are sitting on the sofa, talking quietly to one another.

“Hey, sweetheart,” my dad says, cautiously looking up as we approach. He eases out of his seat and moves towards me with open arms. When he pulls me into a hug, I hesitate for a moment, before returning a feeble imitation of his affection. “Annie, I’m so sorry. We didn’t—“

I can’t hear him say he didn’t know, because he did. Everyone in my life did. So I cut off the lie before it even has a chance to cross his lips. “Where’s Calliope?”

He sighs, then gestures to the hallway behind us with a nod of his head. “She’s in the playroom with your nanny.”

I give him a curt nod before slipping out of his hold and moving in the direction he pointed out. He calls after me, but Christian intervenes.

“No, this is actually going to be a conversation between you and I, Raymond.”

“Okay,” my dad says, more serious now. “Then let’s sit down and have a talk.”

I don’t stop to hear what’s said. I’m single minded, making my way down the hall to the playroom. Calliope is sitting like an island in a sea of toys, smiling at Mackensie while she hands her a colorful, plastic ring.  The joy on her face makes the hollow ache in my chest dissipate, like the dying breath of a dust storm. She looks up as I start towards her, and somehow, that joy reaches a new crescendo.

“Mommy!”

“Hey, Calli-lilly!” I nearly cry, sweeping her up in my arms and hugging her tightly against me. I take a deep breath, inhaling her scent and letting it flood through me until every ounce of trepidation has left my body.

“Hi, Mommy,” she repeats, reaching into my hair and playing with the ends of the strands. I lean forward and kiss every inch of her face, then bask in the wholesomeness of her responding giggles.

“How was grandpa’s house?”

“Pop-pop,” she says, then starts babbling a string of non-words. It doesn’t matter. I stare at her, soaking in each and every bit of nonsense like it’s the most engrossing conversation I’ve ever had.

“You don’t say,” I laugh when she finally presses her lips together in a silent pout. She throws herself forwards and leaves a wet raspberry on my cheek. I sit with her cuddling for a few minutes, listening to Mackensie tell me all about her morning, until she’s suddenly drowned out.

“BULLSHIT! WE HAVE ONE FUCKING RULE!” Christian’s voice comes up the hallway in a thunderous echo that immediately catches Calliope’s attention. Her eyes go wide and her mouth forms a perfect little ‘o.’

“Daddy?”

“Yeah,” I reply, cautiously. “Let me just go see what he’s doing…” Handing her back to Mackensie, I quickly dart from the room. The shouting only intensifies the closer I get. It makes me cringe.

“I don’t care what you meant! No. Pictures. On. The. Internet. It was that fucking simple! And you weren’t even careful in how you worded the fucking thing. Now, not only do I have to worry about how you’ve put my daughter’s safety at risk, I also get to read stories in every gossip magazine across the country about how Anastasia has been unfaithful to me. What do you think that does to our relationship? What do you think that does to the way I look at my security team? Because now, I have Google Alerts popping up on my phone every five fucking minutes telling me that I need to be concerned about the relationship between my wife and the man that I have hired to protect her and my daughter, who you have now put in danger.”

“You can’t really be blaming her for the way some trashy rag has twisted something completely innocent!” my dad shouts back. His tone makes me recede back into the wall, just like I would have when I was seven. “She was pointing out how similar you are! The fact that they have somehow made her saying, ‘no paternity test needed,’ into Ana demanding a paternity test is absolutely ludicrous.”

Christian’s eerily calm response comes through clenched teeth. “I’m not blaming you for how they twisted it, I’m blaming you for posting the fucking picture in the first place. This was something we have both been very clear about. No. Pictures. On. The Internet.”

 “How was I supposed to know all these people would see it?” Kim says, tears welling in her eyes.

“We have a combined twenty-three million PixC followers!” Christian shouts, generously omitting that over twenty million of those followers are his. “You tagged us both.”

“But I didn’t know that’s how it worked. I thought that’s how I sent it to you! All I wanted to do was show Ana how cute that picture was, I didn’t think it would become a national headline.”

“Then why didn’t you just send it to me?” I speak up. Everyone turns in my direction, so I push off the wall I’m leaning on in the archway and move to Christian’s side. “Why didn’t you put it in a text and send it straight to me?”

Kim stutters, looking to my dad for help as she flounders. He takes a deep breath and turns a look on me that pleads for understanding.

“We had no idea this would happen. We made a mistake and I’m sorry, Annie. You know that we’re sorry. She’s deleted the picture, if that means anything.”

“It doesn’t,” Christian practically growls. “Do you have any idea how hard I have been working to make her feel safe again? To take that look,” he turns and points directly at my face, “out of her eyes? I have been killing myself for almost a year to get us back to this point, and you just shattered it.”

“Christian…” my dad begins hesitantly, but my husband holds up a hand to stop him. He starts pacing, shaking his head as though he’s continuing the argument in his mind while he figures out what he’s going to do next. When he decides, he returns to my side and puts on his CEO persona in full force. 

“You’re no longer welcome in my home.”

“Christian!” I protest. He shoots me a warning glare, but it’s not enough to make me fall silent. “You’re not banning my father from my house. That’s out of the question.”

“I agree. Kim, however, is not.” This time, my dad is the one with the indignant reaction, but Christian doesn’t allow my father to stop him, the way he allowed me. “I should have trusted Ana’s instincts from the beginning and I’m sorry that I ignored the warning signs. She was right. You can’t be trusted, Kim. So, you are no longer welcome in my home. You are no longer a welcome part of my family. You are no longer welcome in the presence of my daughter.” He turns to my dad, who has gotten off the couch now. “Calliope will not go to your house anymore. If you would like to spend time with her and Anastasia, you are welcome to visit them here any time you’d like.”

My dad blinks in disbelief, then slowly turns to me, waiting for me to say something. To contradict what Chrisitan is saying. When I don’t, his brow creases with pain. “Annie?”

I stare back, unsure what to say. I can see the hurt I’d feared written clearly across his face and I want nothing more than to make it stop, but… there’s nothing Christian said that I want to refute. I don’t want Calliope going anywhere without security anymore. Even if it is the middle of nowhere, where he lives now. I want her here, behind my gates and under the ever present watch of my cameras and my security team. My desire to have any kind of relationship with Kim was already tenuous at best. Every effort I did put in was only for my father, and now…

“I don’t trust her,” I say quietly, looking down at my feet because I can’t bear to say the words while seeing the heartbreak that stares back at me. “I love you, Daddy, and you will always be welcome here. But I can’t let any more people in who I don’t trust. Not after how I’ve been burned in the past. And I just don’t trust her.”

He takes a shaky breath, processing what I’ve said. I expect a fight. I expect excuses. I expect disappointment. To my surprise, after several eternal seconds, he nods. “Alright. I get it. From one overprotective father to another, I get it.” He turns and reaches a hand out for Kim. “Come on, we should go.”

A tear falls over Kim’s water line as she takes my father’s hand and slowly comes to her feet. She looks like she’s going to say something, try to make a final plea. But when Christian puts an arm around me, presenting us again as a united front, she swallows the words teetering at the edge of her lips and follows my father silently from the room. Christian and I stand there, not moving or saying anything until we hear the beep from the security alarm, and the soft closure of the front door.

“Was that too much?” he asks. “I guess I’m not very good at keeping my temper under control after all. I’ll call and apologize to him tonight if—“

I lean up on my tip toes and cut off his words with a kiss. “Thank you.”

“Always.” The whisper lingers in the space between our lips as he carefully rests his forehead against mine. I reach my arms behind his head and wrap them lazily across the backs of his shoulders, but just as he leans in to kiss me, Taylor appears in the entry from the foyer.

“Sir.”

Christian exhales sharply, but pulls away. I shift my gaze to the head of our security team, then raise an eyebrow when I realize he isn’t alone. The men from outside are flanked on either side of him. 

“Ana, this is Smith and this is Wyatt.” Christian gestures to each of them. “They’re your new bodyguards.”

I look at him in horror. “New bodyguards? What about Luke?”

“He’s not going anywhere. But we’ve decided you need a driver and an extra set of eyes for when you have Calliope with you. Just until the noise dies down a little.”

I look back at them, feeling an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Beefing up my security team last time was the opposite of helpful, so naturally, my initial reaction isn’t a trusting one. 

But if there was ever a time to get me to agree to more security, Calliope’s picture floating around on PixC is definitely it.

“Okay,” I concede, trying to smile at each of them. “Hello.”

“Hello, Mrs. Grey,” they respond in unison. It’s creepy, but at least they’re talking to me now.

“We’ll be ready to leave momentarily,” Christian says, a clear dismissal. The three suited men in our foyer disperse and he turns to me, once again taking me into his arms. “Anything you need before we go?”

I frown. “How upset would it make you if I didn’t go to China?”

“Very upset.” He tilts my face up to his and holds my gaze. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He raises an eyebrow that tells me he doesn’t believe me, so I sigh and push out of his embrace. “I’m just drained. I have no idea where I’m even at with The Greenwich Library and I don’t have the energy right now to deal with that while dragging a fifteen month old through a foreign country. Especially if you’re going to be in meetings the whole time. I don’t want to go.”

He doesn’t respond immediately. Instead, he closes the distance I created and brushes his thumbs under my eyes as though he’s tracing the dark circles I’m sure are there. “Okay. We won’t go.”

My brow crinkles. “We?”

“We,” he confirms. “I told you before, I don’t want to be separated from you and Calliope anymore. I travel with you, you travel with me. If you’re telling me that you can’t, then that goes for me as well.”

“But… you’re meeting with the president of China. This isn’t just some routine trip to a manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere, this is… I mean, it’s China!

He shrugs. “I’ll handle it over the phone.”

You’ll handle it over the phone.” I repeat the words slowly, hoping hearing them out loud will help him realize how ridiculous they sound. He just rolls his eyes.

“Or video conference, whatever. The point is, they’ll come to me. It’s fine.”

I think back to the event I attended with Christian weeks ago where he’d made the first Endurance reveal. He’d said the same thing about Senator Blandino, and he hadn’t been wrong. The man flew half the government all the way across the damn country just to get that contract. Everyone keeps telling me I’m underestimating the magnitude of the Endurance project and what it means for Christian. Maybe I am.

There’s a sudden ruckus behind Christian, and I peer over his shoulder to see what it is. I expect it to be Andrea, but it’s Luke. In his rush to get back home, he comes through the utility room hot and immediately trips over the cooler of snacks Gail had been putting together. With two long steps that slam hard against the stone floor, he manages not to fall face first to the ground, but only because he reaches out to catch himself on the wine rack. A crystal glass rocks violently from its resting place and Luke kicks out his foot, managing to hurl the glass back into the air with the tip of his shoe. It bounces back and forth between his hands a few times before he finally gets a firm hold on it. When he holds it up in the air to inspect it for damage, the kitchen light sparkles over the pristine perfection of the crystal.

“Okay, but did you see that?” He grins.

“You’re the man,” I laugh back.

He slides the glass back on the rack, then saunters into the living room looking very pleased with himself. Christian doesn’t look so enthused.

“Andrea.”

The blonde head bent over the kitchen counter looks up from the tablet in her hands, her finger going still over the glass. “Yes, sir?”

“Cancel my trip. Let them know that we’ll conduct our negotiations through teleconference.”

She stares back at him, utterly befuddled. “Cancel?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Okay… but… To be clear, you’re asking me to call the representatives of the Chinese government and tell them that you’re… not coming.” She says the words in exactly the way I felt them, as though their utterance is completely insane.

Christian just tilts his head to the side and blinks back at her, clearly not in the mood to repeat himself.

“Does Ms. Bailey know?” Andrea tries again.

“Ms. Bailey will defer to my judgment,” he tells her, though she obviously doesn’t buy that one bit. Christian takes a deep, calming breath, then turns his attention back to me. “I need to make a phone call. Do you need anything?”

I shake my head and he leans down to kiss me before turning and leaving the room. I notice Gail dejectedly picking up the cooler and unloading everything inside while Andrea starts to gather her things to go. I probably should offer to go help, since I’m the reason for all the rework they’re about to do, but I’m too distracted by Luke.

“Where were you?” I’m trying for innocence, but he’s so onto me that he might as well be a freckle.

Reading to the blind.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “Is that why you have lipstick on your earlobe?”

“What?” His hand shoots up and he starts to scrub his fingers against his skin. When he pulls his hand away and sees the smear of red staining his thumb, he smiles. “I didn’t say what I was reading. You’d be surprised how quick you can get these women going with just a little erotica.”

“I’m in publishing,” I tell him, plopping down at his side. “I’m very well aware of the avarice appetite for porn out there.”

“Avarice appetite.” He repeats the phrase a few times. “Impressive wordplay there, Harvard.”

I narrow my eyes at him again, and he pushes me away in exasperation.

“What part of ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ makes you think that what I’m actually saying is that I want to talk about it?”

“I’m your best friend. If you’re not talking to me, who are you—“ My words are cut off by the doorbell, and Luke grins excitedly.

“Oh, sorry. I’d love to finish this conversation, but I gotta get that.” He jumps over the back of the couch and walks with a quick pace into the foyer. I follow after him, hovering in the archway, and am surprised when he opens the door and it’s Carrick who is standing there waiting.

“Oh good,” he says, spotting me behind Luke. “I was hoping I’d catch you before you left for China.”

“We’re not going,” I say automatically. “What’s up?”

Luke steps aside and let’s my father-in-law step through the door. He comes to me and wraps me in a hug. “We finally did it, Ana.”

“Did what?” It’s Christian’s voice that asks the question. He comes up behind me and rests gentle hands on each of my shoulders. When his father looks up to give him the answer, a grin spreads wide across his face and he holds up a manila envelope.

“Your senator has completed the investigation. I’ve got the names of the officers who helped Lincoln.”

The envelope disappears from Carrick’s hand in an instant as Luke snatches it away and starts ripping the golden paper apart. I feel like I’m still processing what Carrick has said, but my bodyguard is already tearing through pages, muttering to himself.

“That son-of-a-bitch, I know this motherfucker!”

“Let me see it.” Christian reaches his hand out for the dossier, and after a great deal of hesitation, Luke gives it to him. He’s much more patient in the way he flips through the thick stack of pages held together by a lone staple in the upper left hand corner. He only just barely starts to scan the list of names on the third page before he lets out a disgusted sound and tosses the documents back at his father. “There’s why we had so much trouble starting an investigation. The chief of police is at the top of the fucking list.”

“I know,” Carrick says. “I’ve spoken with his replacement and we’re handling it. He was one of the few arrests we made this morning. The rest of them will be detained by 5 PM tonight. I’ve heard that because it’s you, the judge will be setting an extraordinarily high bail to keep them where they are. With the evidence in this file, I don’t know how they’re going to fight this. Speaking as a defense attorney, this is a nightmare for each and every single one of those men.”

Nightmare,” I scoff, then I reach out my hand towards Carrick, expecting the file. He looks at Christian as though he isn’t sure I should see it, but hands it over when he nods. The summary of the investigation is pages long and I skim most of it. I don’t even take that much time to read the full list of names. My focus is on the pages of evidence collected behind all of that, things I need to be certain will stick. There are phone records, internal communications, and different kinds of messages with Lincoln himself. On page twelve, there’s an email from Lincoln to the chief of police.


To: Harold Seymore

Subject: [Encrypted] Re: Surveillance

Date: March 13th 2011  08:20 PM

From: Andrew Lincoln

I don’t understand what’s taking so long. She is CONSTANTLY out in the city with only Sawyer watching her. Drop the fucker and snatch the bitch off the streets.

Andrew Lincoln


There are text messages that show both of the men who attacked me in that alleyway downtown were Seattle PD.

I toss the file at Christian, unable to get through it all. “You’re sure that’s everyone?”

“Yes,” Carrick says. “We’ve already started interrogating the officers we’ve arrested and of the three, two immediately cracked. They gave us different names, but none we didn’t already have. We’ve got them all, dead to rights.”

I nod, letting myself accept the truth of that statement. Willing myself to let this be the end. Taking respite in the lack of emotion rising inside of me that would make both of those things impossible.

It almost works, until Luke starts trembling with rage. 

“No, this is bullshit. Grey, you know as well as I do that these fucks are all buddy-buddy with the city prosecutor’s office and they’re going to get a slap on the wrist at best. Let me take care of this.”

“Mayor standing in the room,” Carrick says, shooting a serious look at Luke. He doesn’t seem to care. He’s focused only on Christian. He looks thoughtful for a long, tense minute, then takes a deep breath and shakes his head.

“He said arrests will be made by the end of the day. This is why we have a criminal justice system, to deal with people like this.”

“Thank you, son.” Carrick shakes Christian’s hand before finally pulling him in for a hug. Then he moves to me. “I wanted this for you.”

“I know. Thank you.” He hugs me, then refuses my offer for lunch, so I walk him out. When I turn back to look at Luke and Christian, they’re muttering quietly to one another.

“I don’t want any more violence,” Christian hisses at him, which makes Luke press his lips together so hard they disappear. “We’re going to let the courts handle this.”

“And when they’re back out there?” 

He frowns and tosses the file back at Luke. “You have names now, so get to work. Find out what Lincoln had on these people, and make sure they know we have it too. I want everything you can find on their families. We’ll let the law handle this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make reassurances.” 

Luke straightens his back. “Yes, sir.”

Christian reaches a hand out for me, but stops before he fully leads me out of the room. “Oh, and Sawyer…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Failure to report is unacceptable. No more nights away.”

His mouth drops open. “But, sir!”

“I pay you to protect my wife. If she’s in this house and you’re not, what am I paying you for?”

“I-I…” His shoulders deflate. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll expect daily reports on your progress.” He nods to the folder in his hands, then turns and pulls me from the foyer and straight to Calliope’s playroom.

Next Chapter

Taylor PoV: Like Herding Cats…

Hey everyone! It’s my birthday!!!

A bunch of people asked if there was going to be a bonus this week, and my initial answer to that was no.

1. I’m not done with this week’s chapter yet.

2. It’s not a like…. happy, festive, fun chapter. There’s some drama on the horizon, and who wants an epic Christian Grey meltdown on Christmas?

That being said, you guys are so great to me every single week that I decided I really wanted to post something today– so I wrote a quick, non-spoilery outtake! This would take place between chapter 35 and 36 of TFSOF (but that doesn’t matter much).

Hope you enjoy it!!

xoxo

wishingmrgreywashere

This room is always warmer than the rest of the executive suite at GEH. It’s a small, rectangular space with no windows, three desks, and dozens of screens that hum and put off heat. My eyes flit between the images of the residence, Calliope’s daycare, different floors of GEH, the parking garage, and Escala. It’s quiet, which is a good change of pace, but days like these are extremely boring. It’s easy, when it’s like this, to let my mind wander to thoughts of my daughter or plans I want to make for the next weekend we’ll get to spend together… but it’s an urge I fight. I can’t afford to lose concentration. Not when I know what’s out there, lurking in wait. Not after I saw what our failures last time did to Anastasia. Thankfully, the perfect thing to make me refocus suddenly comes through my earpiece.

“Taylor, I’ve got an unexpected delivery for Ana,” Luke murmurs.

“Mrs. Grey,” I correct him with a grumble. “What is it?”

“I’ll go find out.” He’s quiet for a minute, and when I hear him speak again, it’s not to me. “Hey buddy, where you delivering from?”

“Oh, I’m just a courier, man.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing though… Anastasia Grey doesn’t take deliveries from just anyone, I’m going to need a name.”

“I don’t know, dude. I don’t take the orders. I just deliver them.”

There’s another pause before Luke starts again, this time in a more familiar tone. “Did Ana order something I don’t know about?”

“Not that I know of.” It takes a moment to place the female voice that responds– Penny, Anastasia’s assistant—and that irritates me. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to put cameras in her office.

My teeth mash together as I pull up an email on the laptop in front of me and send it off while keeping my attention on the conversation Luke is having.


To: Christian Grey

Subject: GSP Video Surveillance

Date: August 15th 2012  10:27 AM

From: Jason Taylor

Any movement with Gallagher on getting cameras into Mrs. Grey’s office?

Jason Taylor

Head of Security, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.


“So, are you gonna sign or….” The impatience in the courier’s voice is clear, even 2nd hand through Luke’s earpiece, and I automatically make a face as I anticipate Luke’s response.

“Why don’t you chill the fuck out, alright?” he says, making me shake my head. He’s always been the hot head on my team, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the best. “What courier company do you work for?”

“One-Hour Delivery.”

“You only take local orders?”

“No. We’ll only deliver locally but we’ll take orders from whoever calls.”

Luke sighs. “Alright, open the box, Penny.”

“Hey, I can’t let you do that until you sign!”

“Ok, first of all, you need to get it out of your head that you’re letting me do anything…” I can hear the package being sliced open behind Luke’s words, which is the only thing that keeps me from telling him to pull it back a bit. Well that, and Grey’s response.


To: Jason Taylor

Subject: RE: GSP Video Surveillance

Date: August 15th 2012  10:29 AM

From: Christian Grey

Gallagher won’t agree. We’re going to have to go through the building owner.

Christian Grey

CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.


I take a deep breath and start pulling up the records I have on Anastasia’s employer so I can get the contact information for GSP’s landlord, still focusing half my attention on Luke.

“Oh…” Penny says, shame coloring the one word I hear. “I uh… I think this might be from Kate.”

“What is it?” I ask.

There’s a shuffling noise, and Luke responds, “It’s just some candles and shit for her office.”

“So, will you sign now, please?” the courier asks.

“Sure,” Penny says, and the low scratching sound that must be her scrawling her signature on the order form is drowned out by Luke.

“Here, courtesy of Christian Grey.”

“Hey, thanks, man!” the courier says, and after some generic rustling sounds, it goes quiet on Luke’s side again.

“Sawyer, you need to stop being so combative with everyone.”

“Nah, it’s better when I’m scary.”

“Sawyer…”

“I tipped him!”

Sawyer…

“Okay, okay, okay…”

I let out a heavy sigh and dial the number for the landlord to Ana’s building. Then I have to coordinate another delivery to the house. When Grey goes into his R&D meeting, Andrea has to take the Lamborghini to the mechanic for an oil change, which means arranging transportation to get her back to GEH.

At three, I double check all of the Greys are exactly where they’re supposed to be and that my team is in place, then I make two laps through the building. The girls at Grey Publishing always have candy for me when I pop in to make sure they’re doing alright, and there’s a woman up in accounting who has a service dog that I stop and say hi to every time I pass. It helps keep my spirits high when I meander through the first floor lobby and stare at the torrential downpour bouncing off the pavement outside.

Grey likes the rain, but I fucking hate it. And it rains non-stop here from October to June. I think I should get a little reprieve in August—but this city can’t even give me that.

And, as if it wants to rub salt in my wounds, right then a giant thundercloud claps overhead, and the lights in the building go dark. I wait a few uneasy seconds for the back-up generators to kick on… until I remember that the entire power grid is currently being dismantled so it can be replaced with Endurance technology, and the backup generators were the first to go.

For most people, a power outage is an inconvenience. Possibly even exciting—something to break up the monotony of the day at least. For me, it’s a disaster. It means all of the surveillance systems are down, all of the electronic locks… everything.

I reach up for my earpiece as I start back for the security office, which will take me forever to get to since I’m now going to have to take the stairs up thirty-one fucking floors.

“Sawyer, our power is out. You?”

There’s a click that tells me he’d turned the microphone off on his earpiece, and when I hear Ana talking in the background, I know why. He’s always been very protective of his friendship with her, and sometimes it means shit like this. But the closeness between them has proved to be valuable over and over again in the past, so I don’t fight him on it anymore.

Oh my god, look how cute this is!” Ana squeals.

“Yeah, us too. I’m sitting in her office,” Sawyer mumbles to me, probably so Ana won’t hear him.

“Good, stay there. James, you got eyes on Calliope?”

“No, there’s an external door alarm on the south side. Smith and I are going to check it out.”

“What the fuck do you mean you’re going to check it out? Who’s watching Calliope?” I’m met with silence that fills me with equal parts incredulity and dread, so after several seconds of no response, I fill the emptiness with a tirade of lectures and curse words. I’m more out of breath from yelling at my team than the seven flights of stairs I sprint up to get to Calliope’s daycare. Not only is James missing from his post, but so is the receptionist who is never supposed to leave this desk unmanned.

“I swear to fucking god…” I grumble, pulling open the door that no longer locks without power. It’s chaos inside. Shrieks and wails of tears sound from the room to the left, while excited giggles bubble up around me from the older kids. I wade through them all to get to the Caterpillar room and immediately start looking for Kensie, but she isn’t here. A hot rush of panic climbs up the back of my neck and my eyes fly wildly around the room, searching for the mop of familiar brown curls that belongs to Calliope.

She isn’t here.

There are only seven children in this room, and it takes me less than three seconds to critically evaluate each and every one of their faces. Not a single one of them is Calliope.

I go to the teacher across the room who is currently cuddling a screaming toddler, while trying to listen to the mindless ramblings of a little boy hovering nervously near her legs.

“Where’s Calliope?” I demand. She blinks up at me, completely frazzled.

“What do you mean? Isn’t she…” Her eyes move from mine and survey the room, widening with panic when she comes to the same realization I have. “Well she’s supposed to be right here…”

“I know where she’s supposed to be! I’m asking you where she is?”

“I-I—” Her eyes start anxiously searching again until she starts shaking her head with horrible regret. “Shit, I don’t know…”

“You don’t get to not know!”

“I’m sorry! We’re sort of having a situation here… Maybe you can’t tell, but I’m a little overwhelmed with crying babies who don’t understand why it’s suddenly dark.”

“So, the CEO’s daughter is the one you choose to ignore? WHERE IS CALLIOPE GREY?!”

“I don’t know, she has a nanny with her. Where’s Mackensie?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be bothering with you.”

I turn on my heel and storm through the door, glancing over the faces of the other teachers and the sea of tiny people running wildly through the open floor space. Mackenzie isn’t here, and neither is Calliope.

“Calliope isn’t in the daycare,” I parrot to my team, my voice suddenly going low and monotone. Years of military training kicks in like the flip of a light switch, and all the noise around me fades into the background of my concentration. My senses sharpen, and I immediately start mentally clearing the space around me.

“Yeah, I know. Just hold on a second. I’ll be right back,” Luke says, jovially enough that I know he’s talking to Anastasia. There’s a high-pitched scrape, the sound of a chair, and I decide he’s probably leaving her office so he can talk to me without alarming her.

That’s a good call. No need to panic the Greys until I know for sure what’s going on. Especially not the quick-to-irrational-fury one who’s currently on the 31st floor, probably already furious that the power outage has interrupted his day.

There’s the soft sound of a door closing that matches perfectly with the door of the daycare closing behind me and Luke starts hissing angrily through his earpiece. “Taylor, I’m going to need you to repeat what you just fucking said because what I think you said is that you lost Anastasia’s child.”

My gut clenches uneasily at the brutal reality of what he just said, but I choose not to acknowledge it until I’m certain there’s truth to it. Mackensie is also missing after all, perhaps she just taken her on a walk… without a security escort, through the crowded city, during a rainstorm and power outage.

Okay, maybe that isn’t better.

“What was the breach, Smith?” I ask, refocusing on the avenues I have to track her down. “Please tell me we didn’t let someone get out of this building with that baby.”

“There’s nothing out here, just… wait—” His voice stalls, and then raises a few levels in pitch, as though he’s calling to someone far away. “What are you doing out here?”

The response is difficult to hear through the sound of the pouring rain bouncing off the metal roof that covers the courtyard off the back side of the building, but while I’m on high alert like this, I could’ve made out each of their words if they were standing under a thundering waterfall.

“Smoking…”

“You come through that door?”

“Are we… not supposed to? This is the only place we’re allowed to smoke…”

“You go through the east door. What do you think ‘emergency exit only’ means?!”

“Smith, Calliope!” I bark. “Focus.”

“Did anyone come through here with a baby?”

“No, it’s just me.”

I grind my teeth together. “When did you leave your post, James?”

“Five minutes ago?”

“Five minutes.” Does he realize what could have happened in five fucking minutes? “No one leaves anywhere without checking directly with me first, got it?”

“Sorry, sir… I wasn’t expecting the power outage.”

“I don’t want to hear apologies, I want Calliope found. All of you, start searching. Top to bottom, floor by floor. Harper, Wyatt… I want you out on the streets.”

“Are you seriously telling me we lost Calliope?” Luke growls. “What the fuck am I supposed to say to Ana?!”

“Nothing, I’ll find her.” I turn and bolt back into the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time. Praying that the power comes on by the time I make it back to the security office so that I’ll be able to review the footage, and that the feed didn’t cut off before Calliope was taken. It takes almost four minutes for me to get all the way to the top floor, and when I come through the door into the reception area, both Andrea and Olivia shoot concerned looks at me.

“Everything alright, Taylor?” Andrea asks. I can only offer her a half-hearted wave as I stride past her, moving purposefully to my office.

The power didn’t come on, so the monitors are still dark. Luke’s jaw is grinding impatiently in my ear and I have no idea what to say to him.

“Smith? James?”

“I’ve got nothing.”

“Garage is clear.”

“Harper? Wyatt?”

“Nothing suspicious.”

“There’s an officer parked up the street, he didn’t see anyone come tearing out of the garage, so it’s not likely we’re dealing with a getaway car.”

My gut sinks and I feel a hot flash of shame. We haven’t found her, so I’m going to have to tell Grey. And I know he’s going to pop the fuck off. I’ve seen him lose it over far less when something even threatened to get near Anastasia… I can’t imagine what he’s going to do when it comes to Calliope.

“I’ll go inform Grey,” I say, as though I’m informing them of death. Which, considering the situation, might be a reality since Grey is probably going to kill me. 

“You sure?” Smith asks.

“Yeah. Sawyer, don’t tell Anastasia anything until Grey decides what he wants her to know. Everyone get back here and be ready for my orders.”

“How can I help?” Sawyer asks.

“Stay with Ana. Once the power comes on, you’re most useful to me behind a computer.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I disagree. I’m a better shot than either Wyatt or James, and I’m the best you have at hand to hand. If we’re dealing with an abductor, I think I’m the exact person to handle it.”

“No, if someone really did come for Calliope, Ana could also be a target. I need you with her, and I need you sharp.”

“I’m always sharp.”

And arrogant. Don’t forget arrogant.

“Sawyer…”

“Yeah, I got it. Stay put.”

“Good.” With the same amount of courage that once carried me through battle in the past, I shuffle out of the office towards the double oak doors that stand between me and Mr. Grey. There’s a kind of pep-talk running through my mind, convincing me to keep going, but it doesn’t slow me down. With quick efficiency, I push through the doors and steel myself for the news I have to deliver.

Except, instead of the sharp, irritated look I usually expect when I interrupt his workday, I get soft eyes and a warm smile. All because of the tiny little beauty currently standing in his lap, held up by his hands. Her laughter echoes through the room like sweet music. Her soft brown girls bounce with the rhythm of her father’s knees.

“Ah, come in, Taylor. Did you resolve the camera situation for Ana’s office?” His good humor colors every word and I stand there speechless. Calliope makes a loud, happy sound, that catches his attention and makes his face light up. She reaches out and places her palm against his lips, and he kisses it several times before turning expectant eyes back on me.

“Uh… yes, sir. I was just coming to let you know that, uh, all of our surveillance is down because of the power outage.”

“I know, the door to her daycare just opened when I went down there to get her. And they’re so overwhelmed down there I sent Kensie down to the store for snacks to try and calm everyone down. Thankfully, Welch will have GEH transferred to the Endurance grid by Friday, and we won’t have to deal with this anymore.”

“Right. Well, I suppose I’ll just keep you updated then.”

“Sawyer is with Ana, right? A power outage seems like the exact scenario where Kate would call her and talk her into doing something stupid.”

“Yes, Sir. He’s in her office right now. She seems to be having a good day.”

The joy on his face somehow shines through brighter. “Good. If the cameras are down, we should get people down to all the entrances. I still want to know everyone coming in and out of this building.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve already got the team mobilized.”

“Good. Then you can leave us, Taylor.”

“Yes, sir.” I turn around, feeling my heart racing a mile a minute as relief seeps from every single one of my pores… until Grey calls my name again. “Yes, sir?”

He smiles again, and nods to his daughter. “Don’t you think she’s the most perfect thing you’ve ever seen?”

I chuckle. “Yes, sir. The most perfect.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” He turns to her, completely losing himself. “This is going to be your office one day, isn’t it? All of this is going to be yours…”

I turn and leave his office, letting out a long sigh before I reach up for my earpiece. “Grey has Calliope, everyone stand down.”

“Oh, thank god,” Luke exhales. “Well, if there’s no crisis I’m going back into Ana’s office, I’ll be on mute.”

“Fine. And, James?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You’re no longer assigned to daycare. Wait there until Kelley comes to relieve you, then report to my office immediately.”

I can hear him swallow his trepidation. “Yes, sir.”

As the sense of urgency that had consumed me only minutes ago dies away, I’m left feeling drained and tired. The weight of it lands heavily on my chair and I plop down in my seat and stare at the blank monitors around me. My head falls back against the headrest, and I take just a few minutes to let myself relax, but the power switches on and the room around me suddenly hums with life again. I glance up at the screens, once more searching through the images of GEH, the Grey’s home, and Escala for anything that’s gone amiss in the time that’s lapsed since my last check. Everything is quiet. Everything is the same.

And suddenly, I’m very grateful for my boring day.

Chapter 37

The city feels different this time. The heat is stifling after leaving the beautiful seventy-five degree Seattle weather, but it’s not enough to dampen my spirits. A lifetime ago, New York had been a dream. For years I’d lost myself in fantasies of sitting at a counter in a busy coffee shop, absorbing the hustle and bustle that happened all around me while I churned out the next great american novel. Then Christian had brought me here and shattered my heart. Every trip since then has been a string of disasters, each more terrible than the last.

But this time… it’s different.

We’re staying in the penthouse suite of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. We’ve dined in some of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to. Our first night here, Christian took my hand and led me into Central Park. We’d walked along the beautifully manicured paths through the twilight, soaking each other in as he listened to me unload all the trepidation I feel over the Greenwich Library launch. None of the doubt I felt ever crept into the encouraging words he offered in return. After feeling the immense amount of comfort that reassurance gave me, I couldn’t drag him back to our bed fast enough.

The morning of my launch, though, all of that anxiety comes crashing back. Abby showed up at my hotel room first thing this morning to help me prepare. Now she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of the sitting room, helping me confirm guest lists, vendors and entertainment, transportation, and accommodations for our big name talent. By ten, my fingers are sore from the number of emails I’ve had to type out on my phone.

It’s lunch time when Christian comes back from his workout in the hotel gym, and he finds me shaking with nerves while I pace back and forth across the floor.

“Stop,” he tells me, letting the door slam behind him as he rushes across the room to take me in his arms.

“I can’t. We haven’t been able to get ahold of Meghan Michaels all morning, what if she doesn’t show up?”

“She will.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“Then fuck her.”

“The catering company called and asked for a half-hour extension, but I told them I couldn’t give that to them. What if I accidentally give everyone food poisoning?”

He rolls his eyes. “You’re being ridiculous now.”

“What if no one subscribes, Christian?”

“That’s not going to happen, baby. Tonight will be perfect. Meghan Michaels will show up and post a million and a half pictures online, no one is going to get sick, and you will still be the most beautiful woman in the world.”

I smile, but let out an exasperated sigh. “That last one isn’t going to help with anything.”

“I disagree.” He leans down, kisses me, then pulls me back towards the door.

“What are you doing?” I ask in a panic when the light from the hallway suddenly comes pouring into my sitting room.

“You need to get out of the hotel for a while, clear your mind. Let’s go see the city a little.”

“But—“

My protest is cut off by another kiss, and it lasts until he’s pushed me into the elevator and the doors have slid closed behind him.

He doesn’t lead me anywhere in particular. Mostly, we let street-food vendors, performers, and traffic lights lead us through the streets. Once we try to call my dad, who has Calliope while we’re out of town, but Kim tells us he’s got her out on the boat with a fishing pole and she doesn’t expect they’ll be back for a few hours. Christian was irritated when he hung up because he thought getting to talk to our daughter would pacify the last of my nerves, but this is better. Thinking of her sitting with my dad, probably holding the same pink fishing pole I did when I was little, brings a warm sense of comfort that doesn’t extinguish my stress, but is simply more important. I duck under Christian’s arm and hold myself against his side until he suddenly comes to a dead stop.

“We should go this way,” he says, nodding in the opposite direction. I look up at him, confused.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just don’t go down this street.”

My eyes move up, following the towering buildings until I see exactly why Christian wants to change course. We’re standing in the shadow of the Empire State Building.

Looking at the Art Deco skyscraper, I can suddenly recall my memories from the last time I was here with such vivid clarity, I almost drop his hand. Part of me wonders if he can sense that, because the moment the thought passes through my mind, his fingers tighten around mine.

I hate it. I hate that part of him, no matter how small, will always be waiting for me to leave and it’s because of this building. I hate that he still has nightmares about this place and that I’m the reason for them. I hate that I wasn’t strong enough then to bear what this place represents…

But I am now.

“Come on,” I tell him, tugging against the hand that feels like a vice grip. He doesn’t budge. Instead, his eyes move down to me with alarm.

“No. I don’t go down this street, Anastasia.” His voice is final, leaving no room for negotiation. Which is fine with me, because I also don’t intend on negotiating.

“Fine.” With a hard yank that he doesn’t expect, I slip my hand from his and start across down the sidewalk toward the silver revolving doors. He calls out for me, but I don’t stop. His heavy footfalls sound behind me a second later as he runs to catch up.

“Anastasia, watching you walk away from me down this street is not helping,” he growls, wrapping a hand around my elbow. I don’t let him stop me. I reach out for the bar that stretches across the glass and metal door in front of me, and pull it back.

“Does this help?”

As if he had to walk through a curtain of fire to do it, he comes through the door after me. This time, I don’t get the choice to continue or not.

“Stop.” His hands are firm on me, holding me in place. “I’m not doing this. I don’t want to do this. I want nothing to do with this fucking building.”

“Well that’s a shame. I want to see the view.”

“Why are you doing this?” he whispers, pain finally breaking through the angry determination coloring his face. I give him a small, but reassuring smile, then turn for the elevators. Begrudgingly, he follows after me.

There’s a line to go up to the observation deck, but a few hundred dollar bills in the attendant’s white-gloved hand gets us into an elevator car by ourselves. I can hear Christian grinding his teeth as we feel the jolt of the elevator lift us into the air. So, I do what he does best. I grab hold of the front of his t-shirt, push him back into the wall, the way he’s done to me hundreds of times, and begin to devour his lips.

He doesn’t respond immediately. He kisses me back, but his body is rigid. I reach down to his forearm, gripping tightly to my name, and absolutely ravage him. By the 50th floor, he gives into my passion and suddenly I’m the one pinned beneath him. The weight of what he’s carrying falls on top of me. I can feel it in his lips. I can feel it in the desperate grip of his hands. When the car slows, and the ding announcing our arrival at the 86th floor, I watch him flinch.

He steps out of the elevator willingly, but after that, he doesn’t move. It takes every tool in my arsenal to coax him out onto the observation deck, and when I do, I hold my arms open and look around the crowded viewing area.

“See,” I tell him. “No ghosts.”

He stares at me for a long minute, unable to arrange the emotions roiling through him into coherent thoughts or words. Eventually, he gives up trying and moves to me. His strong arms wrap around my body and he pushes me toward the concrete barrier that gives us a sweeping view of the city. I press back into him, tracing my fingers absentmindedly over his skin as we take everything in.

“I’m never going to leave you, Christian,” I tell him, softly. “I couldn’t, even if I should. Walking away from you would kill me. No matter what, remember?”

He’s quiet for a beat, then exhales with relief. “Say it again.”

“I’ll never leave you. No matter what. This is forever. You didn’t walk away when I was so broken there weren’t enough pieces left of me to make you stay. You didn’t give up on me when I was trying to give up on you. The war is over, Christian, and you’re the only one left to sit on the throne. You want me to be a queen? I am your queen, and I’m going to stand by your side while you rule this world until the day I die. No. Matter. What.” I glance around once more, making a show of it. “This. This is just a building. Part of a past that doesn’t matter anymore.”

He nods and tightens his hold on me. I hum slightly as I feel his lips press into my cheek. We linger for a few more minutes, and when we finally turn back to the elevator, Christian no longer clings to me for dear life. He doesn’t hurry for the elevator and he isn’t irritated with me as we make the descent back to the city streets. He merely pulls me against him and tells me how much I mean to him until the elevator doors slide open, and we step back into New York.

**** 

There’s a very stark difference between the events we normally attend for GEH, and the party I’ve put together for GSP. Normally on nights like these, I’m obsessing over my hair or the way I’ll look in the designer gown Christian had custom ordered. Tonight, my hair hangs down straight over my shoulders, I’m dressed in a nice but casual sheath dress, and I’m so strung out with stress I can’t stop stalking back and forth across the bedroom of our suite.

“Well?” Christian asks. He steps out of the bathroom and saunters towards me, holding his hands out to his side, and then spinning around so I can get the whole view of his look. He’s wearing a pair of navy slacks and a white collared shirt that’s unbuttoned further than is normal for him. His sleeves are rolled all the way up to his elbows so his tattoo is on full display. He really is a knockout.

“You look great,” I tell him.

Great?” He wrinkles his brow with distaste and closes the space between us. “You’re supposed to tell me that I’m the most heart-stoppingly handsome man who has ever walked the face of the earth and then present me a gift as a token of your affection.”

“I am?”

“Why do you think you leave for every one of my events dripping in diamonds, Anastasia?” He lets out a playfully exasperated sigh that makes me giggle.

“Well, you are, in fact, the most heart-stoppingly handsome man who has ever walked the face of the earth, Mr. Grey. And I actually did get you a gift… it’s just not meant for you to wear.”

“Oh?” His eyes shift down to my breasts, intrigued.

“Mhm. But you don’t get to unwrap it until we get home. You’re just going to have to be patient until then.”

He growls and pulls me until I crash into the wall, his body immediately overtaking mine and pinning me in place. “Patience isn’t really my thing, baby.”

I bite my lip and look directly into his smoldering gray eyes. “I know. That’s what’s going to make finally coming back here so much fun.”

With a want-fueled groan, his lips lower to mine. I’m ravaged by his tongue while his hands fist into the fabric of my dress, a vague threat that he could, if he wanted to, just rip it away.

“Let me see it,” he whispers into my mouth. “Give me something to fantasize about all night.”

“Trust me, the second you see it, you’re not going to care about anything else but fucking me. Since I have somewhere to be, you’re just going to have to use your imagination.”

“Must I?” His lips find mine again and his hands move down from my waist to my hips. I can feel his fingers digging into my dress and pulling it up. The loose hem of my skirt skims softly over my skin as it rises up over my thighs. His tongue is half way down my throat, his hands move to my now exposed ass, and his rock hard erection presses into my hip, which is of course the exact moment Abby bursts into my suite.

“Ana, we’re rea—oh my god, I’m so sorry!” She nearly trips over her shoes as she stumbles backwards out of the room, but the distraction is enough for me to slip out of Christian’s grip.

“You heard her,” I tell him. “We’re going to be late.”

The lustful glint in his eye shines back at me, telling me he’s not ready to go fucking anywhere. “I’m hard.”

“Well, try thinking about sports. Not the Seahawks, obviously, since that’ll just make it worse…” I smile at him, chuckling slightly at my own joke. “But, like… the Rams or something.” 

He isn’t impressed. Instead, he takes a step toward me and leans down to speak softly in my ear.

“We can go, but if I’m still hard by the time we get in the car, I’m going to have no choice but to lay you over my lap and spank you until you’re as uncomfortable as I am.”

I shiver, then close my eyes and take a deep breath of him. “Or I could just blow you in the back seat…”

He moans, then takes my hand and starts barreling towards the hotel door. Abby has to hurry to keep pace with us as Christian pulls me through the hallway to the elevator. Every update she has for me is better news than I had hoped for, so by the time Christian has me in the back seat of our chauffeured town car, I’m the one who pounces on him.

“Open your pants,” I plead against his lips, reaching over to close the privacy glass between us and the driver. His hands move down to his fly, then tangle in my hair to pull me down to his waiting cock. I don’t ease into it. With a long, satisfied moan, I take him into my mouth and sink down until my face is pressed so hard into him that I can’t breathe.

“Fuck yes, Ana,” he hisses back. His head drops back and his hands fall limply to his side. He doesn’t thrust into my throat, he doesn’t grab ahold of me to try and control my pace. He just lets me pleasure him, and the rare bit of control he’s seceded drives me wild. Every moan, every gasp, every sudden grunt of pleasure is mine. My tongue traces every inch of him, and he hums out how good it feels. My lips pull tightly every time I rise and fall, and it makes the muscles in his legs tense again and again. Every time I suck him into my throat, I purposefully swallow as hard as I can, and it makes him shudder. I even force myself to gag on him a few times, just so he can feel it.

“I’m going to come,” he warns me, so I start sucking harder and keep him deep in my throat. It takes seconds for him to finish after that and the guttural way he shouts my name as he explodes has me high on power. When I finally pull away and see him flushed and panting, I feel a rush wash through me that has me flying.

I’m starting to see why the dominance appeals to him so much.

“I love you,” he says through the harsh, broken breaths he’s still forcing out. With a smile, I lean in and softly press my lips against his. We’re starting up the block towards my party now, I can see the flashes of the cameras waiting for us at the entrance. So I lean back and give him a sheepish look.

“Am I a mess?”

“Just your lipstick. Here…” He reaches up and, with his thumb, brushes away the peach residue that’s smeared around my mouth. I reach into my clutch, cursing myself for not bringing a mirror, and pull out the gold tube to re-apply my makeup. He watches me try to carefully drag the crayon over my lips, but when I hesitate over my cupid’s bow, he laughs, takes the lipstick from me, and colors the rest in himself.

“How do I look?” I ask, rubbing my lips together and leaning back.

He smiles. “Like a fucking dream.”

I hum with affection and grab onto his hand as the car comes to a stop. But when the door opens, he doesn’t let me pull him out with me.

“Take a couple seconds for yourself,” he says instead. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Giving his hand three, quick, I love you squeezes, I step out onto the street by myself. Cameras flash a few times while I move toward the entrance of the venue, and I’m shocked by how many of them are here. This is just a small party, not much different from the one I’d attended with Christian back in June for The Black Rose. I suppose Meghan Michaels attendance was bound to draw the interest of the paparazzi, but when the car door opens behind me and I’m suddenly engulfed in an explosion of light, the photographer’s presence suddenly becomes very clear. Christian’s name flies over my shoulder and I turn to look at him. He doesn’t stop to soak in any of the attention the way he would at a GEH event. Instead, with his head down, he walks to stand behind me, and wraps his arms around my waist. Only then does he look up at the cameras.

I lean back into him and let the bliss I feel being pressed against his chest shine through in my face. He kisses my cheek and I bask in the affection. When I turn and press my lips against his, he holds me tight against him and gives me the most passionate kiss he can, knowing the pictures will be public in just a few short hours. I turn and smile while he keeps adoring eyes focused on me, then I take him by the hand and lead him inside.

He doesn’t even blink over it.

I’d been worried the venue we’d picked for tonight’s party was too large, we only expected around 100 people. Stepping through the front doors, I realize we didn’t choose a space large enough. The place is packed, and the moment we come through the door, every pair of eyes in the room seems to find us.

“Mr. Grey,” a man standing a few feet away from us says, moving forward with his hand outstretched. “My name is Aaron Michelson, I work with JetBlue Airways. If you have a moment to talk about Endurance…”

“I don’t,” Christian interjects. “I’m only here to support my brilliant wife. Excuse us.” He pushes me away from the man opening and closing his mouth like a sea bass behind us, and ignores several other cries for his attention until we spot Carmen near the bar. She’s surrounded by a small crowd of people herself. As we approach, I can hear the heaps of praise they lay on her for her ingenious idea.

“The industry has changed,” she says, profoundly. “I knew we needed to find a way to compete with self-publishing, this seemed like the most reliable way to do that.”

“You’re just full of great ideas, aren’t you?” Christian says, bitterly. Carmen jumps and turns to face us, but her eyes don’t even pass over me. She sees Christian and starts to glare.

“Grey.”

“It’s not a great sign of leadership if you can’t even give the people underneath you credit when it’s due.”

“Yeah? How much credit do you give Welch when you’re talking about Endurance?”

“Plenty. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Carmen rolls her eyes, then steps away from the interested looks of the people standing around her and pulls Christian to the side. “That was a real dirty play you made on Gutierrez.”

He laughs. “I heard what you said to Gutierrez about GEH to get that deal, Gallagher. You don’t want to have to contend with my wrath? Come correct next time.”

“That deal was the crux of my entire 2013 pipeline, Grey. Everything I have is dependent on that contract.”

“So?”

“So… what do you want for it?”

The grin plastered on his face widens. “You know what I want, Carmen.”

“Yeah, well now.” She grimaces, but Christian shakes his head.

“My reasons haven’t changed.”

“Well, there’s no way in hell. Not now. Not after this.”

“What if I throw in Barney?”

Mostly, I’d been ignoring their conversation, choosing instead to scan the room to make sure my high profile guests haven’t arrived without me knowing. Barney’s name catches my attention as effectively as if it had been my own.

“Barney?” Carmen repeats, though her tone is no longer hard and accusing. She’s interested.

“He’s trained under Welch, he designed your app… I’ll back out of the deal with Gutierrez, tell him I can’t manage it with Endurance, and I’ll give you Barney.”

“And my licensing?” 

He shrugs. “Someone might have made a mistake. Who’s to say?”

“I’ll think about it,” she says after a long pause. “I’ll be in touch with your office to set up a meeting.”

“My assistant will be waiting with baited breath.”

She glares at him again, clearly not appreciating the slightly condescending lilt to his voice, then finally turns to look at me. “Congratulations, Anastasia. Your launch party is a hit. Excuse me.”

She starts to walk away, but just before she makes it out of earshot, Christian calls her back. 

“What?” Her eyes are sharp. Christian looks back at her as though he’s made of steel. 

“I’m warning you, Gallagher. You make me wait for it, I’m going to come take it. And if I have to come take it, I’m going to take a hell of a lot more than I’m asking for right now.” 

“Is that a threat?” 

“Do I look like the kind of man who makes threats?” 

She sucks in a sharp breath of air that makes her shoulders fan out, then she spins on her heels and marches away. My eyes follow her as she moves into the crowd and I’m just about to round on Christian and demand to know what the fuck just happened, but instead, I spot Abby by the door. She waves over to me in a panic and I think I see her mouth that Meghan Michaels is here.

“Hold on, Christian,” I say, distracted. My hand falls from his as I move towards my assistant, but when I look back, he hasn’t followed me. He seems to have melded in perfectly with the group of people Carmen left behind.

The cameras are flashing just as wildly as they did for Christian when I step outside, though this time, they’re pointed at a buxom blonde who looks gleeful as she poses for each shot. She’s an influencer from Los Angeles who decided to write a book about how to become internet famous. It’s not exactly the most intellectual read, but the girl has 18 million PixC followers and I was in no position to turn down that kind of exposure. The way the photographers catcall at her as she turns for the booty shot, makes me think that I’m right.

“Anastasia!” she calls, waving me over. I move to her side and pose with her, ignoring any questions thrown at me and instead letting her take up all the attention. She’s the one I’m here to sell, and if I had my way, she’d stay in front of these cameras all night.

Unfortunately, she loses interest in the attention all too soon and moves inside to seek the spotlight from someone else. I’m stuck though, as my second big name, Naveed Bijan, steps out of the next car to pull up. He’s a comedian who has an impressive following and great wit for writing. I lucked out over him being just obscure enough that his manuscript didn’t catch the attention of the big players in the industry. I let him stand with just his group of friends for a while, then take a few pictures at his side. Once he’s ready to bail, I follow him in.

“If you see a camera, get in front of it,” I tell him before releasing him for the bar. It wasn’t advice I had to give to Meghan. I can see her sitting in the VIP section taking enough selfies that it seems foolish for the press to have come at all. I just have to hope that the hundreds of thousands of likes those photos will undoubtedly get will also result in a few subscriptions.

“What color is it?” Christian whispers in my ear from behind, interrupting my thoughts. He chuckles when I jump.

“What color is what?”

“Whatever the fuck you have under this dress.” I can feel his smile against my neck. “I’ve been picturing red.”

“Wrong.” I laugh, and he wraps his arms around me.

“You could let me find out. There’s a utility closet in the hallway to the bathrooms. All you’d have to do is stay very, very quiet.”

“You think so, huh?” I turn around to face him, my teeth set firmly against my bottom lip as I lean in and brush the tip of my nose against his. He eyes me hungrily, and I can see the idea cross his mind that he might just toss me over his shoulder and carry me back to said utility closet. Before he makes his decision though, we’re once again interrupted by my assistant.

“Ana, I just got the first subscription report back from Stevens. You have to look! We’re already at almost thirty-seven thousand subscribers!”

“What!” My hands can’t move fast enough for my phone, and I nearly break my clutch in two trying to wrestle it out. When it wakes though, I have more than just an email waiting for me. My screen is littered with PixC notifications, texts, missed phone calls, voicemails, and Google Alerts. It makes me panic, so instead of checking my email, I open my texting app. The one at the top is from Kate, so I read it first.

Oh my god, Ana. Go look at Kim’s PixC.

An overwhelming sense of dread takes hold of my heart as I swipe through my apps to open PixC. I don’t have to search for her name because she tagged me in the post. Sitting at the top of my feed is a picture of Calliope, frowning, next to a picture of Christian from last Thanksgiving making the exact same face. She’s captioned it, “No paternity test needed! @AnaGrey @ChristianGrey,” and she’s published it for the entire world to see.

There’s no need for me to look at the Google Alert waiting for me, but I do anyway.


Google Alert: Christian Grey

TMZ, August 21st 2012. Pictures of Christian Grey’s baby have finally surfaced and she looks just like her ultra-hot dad… or does she? The PixC snapshot, which was posted by a close family friend and has introduced Calliope Grey to the world, seems to imply that Anastasia Grey is questioning the paternity of her own child.


Next Chapter

Chapter 36

On Saturday evening, I have my hair in rollers while I skim through the manuscripts I didn’t make it through by the end of the week. It’s difficult to concentrate, and has been ever since I left Elizabeth’s office on Thursday. My eyes and ears are trained on my inbox, waiting for the Grey Publishing contract to come through. I was worried the jig was up when I hadn’t received it by this morning, but Christian hasn’t mentioned anything to me all day. And I know if he found out what I was doing, he’d definitely have something to say. Even if it was just to let me know that I’d been caught, and he was the one to do it. My fear now is that she’s just changed her mind, which would be extraordinarily frustrating after all of my hard work.

“Mr. Sawyer?” A member of the GEH security team, who Taylor is currently working on transitioning into our personal security team, steps into my office. When he finds the chair Luke’s been in all afternoon empty, his eyes dart frantically around the room.

“Smith, right?” I try, even though I know it’s pointless. He doesn’t look at me, he stands stock straight and stares ahead at nothing, like the guards at Buckingham Palace. After rolling my eyes, I nod toward the door on the wall opposite me and offer a half-hearted, “he’s in the bathroom.”

I’m not even sure he blinks back at me.

A few seconds later, Luke emerges through the bathroom door and turns a sternly curious look on Smith. “What are you doing in here?”

“Looking for you, sir. I came to ask you to let Mrs. Grey know that the chef has arrived and he’d like to go over tonight’s menu with her before his staff gets to work.”

Luke nods and turns to face me. “Mrs. Grey, the chef for tonight’s dinner is here and he’d like to speak with you.”

I glare at him, and grind my teeth at the annoying game of telephone that’s been going on all morning. “One more time, Luke. Call me Mrs. Grey one more time, and I swear to god…” I stand up in my chair and close the screen of my laptop, hoping I’ll be able to put the Greenwich Library out of my head long enough to make it through the night. Then I come around the desk and move past him, keeping my narrowed eyes trained on his. “And I heard him.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. Understood.”

Honest to god, my hand twitches. Tonight is an extremely important night for Christian, GEH, and Endurance, and it has my whole household in a near panic. Gail’s been banished from her own kitchen to make room for a Michelin rated chef. Every available body has been brought here to provide security. There have been delivery men coming in and out all day, and my best friend is stuck in permanent CPO mode.

And I get it.

Tonight there will be three high ranking military officials, six senators, two congressmen, and the Secretary of Energy seated around my dining room table. It honestly feels like the only important person in the entire country who won’t be here is the President of the United States, and it has everyone strung out on stress. 

Well, except for Christian. 

He left with Calliope early this morning as if it were any other Saturday and hasn’t come back yet. Taylor’s been updating me as he’s driven them all over the goddamn city, and it seems to me like he isn’t planning on being home any time soon. They just met Elliot and Kennedy at the zoo forty-five minutes ago.

When I step into my kitchen, there’s a woman in a white coat waiting for me with a staff of people behind her. She pulls out an elegant looking menu and shows me what she has planned: a pacific northwest inspired meal including Hamachi, locally sourced greens, a fireweed bread inspired by native recipes, and a wild huckleberry cobbler. I’m obviously not about to tell a world celebrated chef that I have any issues with the personally crafted menu she created for me, especially because I don’t, so I thank her warmly and tell her how much I’m looking forward to tasting her food. With a gracious smile, she backs into the kitchen and I hear the distant rumble of the garage behind the noise that erupts around me.

I wait for Christian to come through the kitchen, and when he does, I’m dumbfounded. Calliope is asleep in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder. She’s still clutching a plastic bag filled with pink cotton candy, and there’s a white and purple fairy painted on her cheek. The shocking part, though, is that Christian has one to match. Half his face is covered in glittery lavender paint that swoops elegantly around his eyes and lips.

“That’s quite the look, Mr. Grey,” I say, smiling. He rolls his eyes. “What happened?”

You too, Daddy.” He takes a deep breath, but drags a loving hand softly over Calliope’s back. “What was I supposed to say? No? I’m not a monster.”

 “No, I don’t think you are.” My eyes sparkle at him adoringly. “But, I don’t think it’s a look that’s going to impress Senator Blandino.”

“Good thing I’ve already impressed him.” I laugh, then place a soft kiss against his lips before turning back to my office. His hand reaches out for mine and he tugs me back. “Come help me get Callie cleaned up and put to bed.”

“Can you give her to Mackensie? I’ve got like 3 manuscripts left to get through and I still have to get ready.”

“No.” He steps forward and grips my chin between his thumb and forefinger and stares deep into my eyes. “Come help me give our baby a bath and put her to bed. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.”

“But…”

“It can wait.” His voice is firm, so I nod and actually feel a sense of relief. I’ve been driving myself insane all day waiting for Elizabeth’s email, it will probably be a welcome reprieve shutting all of that out and focusing only on him and Calliope for a little while. You know, before this career deciding dinner. Oh, and did I mention my app is launching in three days?

I can feel the stress soaking deep into my muscles, so I take a deep breath to push it away and slide my hand into Christian’s. He leads me upstairs and I draw a bath for Calliope while he gently eases her out of sleep. Her face is immediately contorted with a sleepy, grumpy expression, but it melts away when Christian takes her to the mirror and lets her see the paint still lighting up the space around her eyes. She brightens instantly, pointing to his face and giggling. Then in the bath, she fights us both to keep us from washing it away. We let her keep the paint, at least until tomorrow, but otherwise wash the day off her and get her dressed in her coziest PJs. I plop down in the rocking chair and take her in my lap so I can read her a story. Christian folds himself on the floor in front of me, looking up at me with that ridiculous paint all over his face, my name proudly displayed on his forearm, and he starts to massage my feet.

I could die right then.

It doesn’t take long for Calliope to drift off, even her dad looks tired from their afternoon together. I still read the entire book, just so I can hold her in my arms a little longer. Just so I can feel Christian touching me. Once I close the hard bound cover, though, Christian gets up, gently eases our baby out of my embrace, and lays her in her crib. I sing a few, soft notes, just in case she’s still on the edge of sleep. But once Christian has the mobile swaying over her wound up, he wraps an arm around me and, together, we slowly back out of the room.

The second we hear the soft, metal clink of the door jam coming together, we’re all over each other.

Maybe it should bother me that he currently looks like a nineteen year old girl strung out on LSD at Coachella, or that the glitter fluttering off of him and on to me will be next to impossible to remove before our guests get here since I don’t have time to take a shower, but it doesn’t. Far from it. How could something that proves what a dedicated father he is do anything but turn me on?

Under the urging of his instant hands and even more aggressive tongue, I move with him back to our bedroom. The light is on in the adjoined bathroom, and it draws his attention. Christian glances up and spots Kate, perched on our bathroom counter, making a face at us through the bathroom door.

“Gross, don’t you two have an off switch?”

“No,” Christian replies, bluntly. “Get out.”

Slowly, a teasing, yet completely elated smile begins to paint her expression. “What. In. The. Hell…

Christian rolls his eyes. “I’d be very careful about your next words, Katherine.”

She doesn’t even flinch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Christian. I think it’s beautiful. You look like a pretty little princess.”

Christian rolls off me and storms to the door, pushing it all the way open and standing to the side to make room for her. “Get the fuck out, Kate.”

She doesn’t move.

“I’m sorry, I’m really trying to hear you right now but the only thing that I can focus on are the fairy wings delicately framing your eyes. Seriously, how did you get through an afternoon with Elliot having that shit on your face?”

His eyes narrow. “You think this is bad, you should see him.”

She laughs, nearly falling off the counter as she doubles over and tries to catch her breath. Christian shakes his head irritably. “Kate. Get out of my bathroom.”

“No, I need her,” I argue, getting out of bed gently pushing past him. He looks as though I just stole his childhood security blanket. “She’s here to finish my hair and do my makeup.”

“And to cock block you,” Kate adds, finally finding her voice through the raucous laughter. “It’s literally one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

Christian turns a very unhappy look on me, then lets his eyes wander over my body in regret. Then he lets out a sigh. “Fine, I’ll shower downstairs.”

He leans down and softly presses his lips against mine. It’s sweet and romantic, but there’s a promise buried beneath the gentle caress of what’s in store for me later. Shivers work their way through my bloodstream so that by the time he pulls away, my entire body feels like it’s being pulled with him by some powerful magnetic force.

“I’ll be thinking of you,” I whisper. He smiles against my mouth.

“If I think of you, I’ll be coming down the shower drain. And that would be a terrible waste.”

I bite down on my lip with want and let out a small needy sound that has him lunging for my lips again.

“Twenty-three minutes, Ana. Oop, twenty-two,” Kate interjects, and I pull away from Christian in an instant.

“Shit! I’ve got to…”

“I know, I’m going.” With one last bitter look at Kate, he turns and leaves the room. Kate calls out her goodbye, letting the insincerity of her regret over his misfortune linger in his absence. I glare at her, but she just laughs and reaches for my hair.

Despite the fact that Christian hasn’t even started getting ready by the time Kate begins work on my makeup, he’s the one waiting for me as the end of the hour ticks closer and closer. I can feel him hovering in our bedroom and it does nothing but compound the stress building in my gut.

“Kate…”

“I’m almost done, I’m almost done.” She purses her lips into a pouty pucker and dabs her lipstick covered finger over my bottom lip. “There, you look flawless.”

I turn in the mirror and appreciate her work. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever not be impressed with her artistry. She may have missed her calling, except that she’s actually doing exactly what she was born to do. Snoop where she doesn’t belong.

“You’re a lifesaver,” I tell her. “Help me get into my dress?”

“Sure.” She follows me into my closet, then helps me ease the custom, cobalt blue, Karl Lagerfeld that Christian surprised me with this morning over my head, careful not to ruin my hair or face. Once she’s zipped me in, she stands back to appreciate the completed project. “Honestly, you should let me dress you every day.”

“Do I look smart?” I ask, twisting in front of the mirror and smoothing the lines on the front of the perfectly constructed sheath dress. Kate raises an eyebrow at me like I’ve gone insane, but Christian comes up behind me and grabs hold of my arm, spinning me to face him before Kate can speak.

“You are a vision,” he says, his smoky eyes raking in every inch of my body. “In fact, you might be a little too beautiful for tonight. It wouldn’t be good business if I have to give the Secretary of Energy a broken nose for his wandering eyes.”

“Well, you might just have to learn to control yourself, Mr. Grey.”

“Not when it comes to you.” He lifts my hand high above my head and spins me so that he can get a look at my ass in the dress, then sucks in a sharp breath of air through his teeth. “Absolute perfection.”

I blush and then turn again so I can kiss the lips that offer such sweet words, but Kate’s hand appears between us before I can make contact.

“You’ll ruin your lipstick and I’ve put far too much effort into this masterpiece to let Christian fuck it all up because he can’t keep his dick put away for a few hours. Get moving, Steele.”

Christian glances at her, then turns a too calm look on me. “You see what you’ve brought into our home.”

“Hey, she’s your sister-in-law. You could have talked Elliot out of it.”

He snorts and shakes his head, but the doorbell sounding from downstairs cuts off any smartass remark he might have. Kate begins to gather her things, and I give her a last grateful hug before I take Christian’s hand and walk side by side with him downstairs. Senator Blandino, Senator Hadfield, and Senator Takahashi stand in the foyer waiting for us with their wives.

“Gentleman,” Christian calls in greeting as we descend the stairs. “Welcome to our home. May I offer you a drink?”

“Good show,” Senator Hadfield replies. He leans down and kisses his wife on the cheek, then turns with the other two Senators to exit the foyer. I feel a shock of disappointment when I feel Christian’s hand slip from mine, then a rush of panic when I realize he intends to leave me alone with the wives.

I’ve tried to prepare for this dinner all week. Politics isn’t exactly my strong suit when it comes to conversation, so I’ve been sure to pay extra close attention to the news and any mention of current events. Outside of that, I have no idea what I’m going to talk to these women about. But when our husbands leave, they all turn expectantly to me.

“Uh…” I begin awkwardly. “May I give you a tour?”

“That sounds heavenly, Mrs. Grey. This house is absolutely beautiful,” Senator Hadfield’s wife responds, her Alabama accent wrapped like thick molasses around her words. The woman gives me a wide smile that seems so practiced I feel like I’m standing in front of a beauty queen, and the other two wives immediately imitate her.

“Great,” I reply. “Follow me.”

Luke steps out of the security office and falls silently in place behind me as I turn and lead the women through the house. They’re over complimentary about every room I take them through, oohing and awing at Christian’s impressive art collection, and the flawless design of the rooms we use so little I hadn’t even bothered trying to decorate them and had hired someone to do it instead. Senator Seder’s wife, who joined us while I took the others out on the veranda, laughs nervously at everything I say. When we finally settle down in the formal sitting room and are handed drinks from the wait staff Christian hired, it’s like an all out brawl starts between them as they clamor for my attention.

“So what is it that you are passionate about, Anastasia?” Cynthia Hadfield asks. She slowly lifts her drink and nine pairs of eyes turn curiously in my direction.

I have to fight my blush. “Well, I run a publishing company. So… books, mostly.”

“And that is so important,” Jamila Fox, the wife of Congressman Gerald Fox, interjects. “You know my husband just co-sponsored a bill with the good gentleman from Colorado. Educators all around the country have been saying it will have a dramatic impact on literacy rates for children under the age of ten.”

“That’s right,” Sarah Noriega, the wife of the other congressman, agrees. “My husband always says the best way to take drugs and guns out of young people’s hands is to put a book in them instead.”

“Is that so?” I take a long drink from my wine glass, nodding politely as the other wives jump in and try to impress me with the legislation their husbands have introduced, or their voting records on things they think will be important to me. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve been a nervous wreck over this dinner for days because I was worried I’d look like an idiot in front of these women, who are part of the very fabric that makes up our most important government institutions, but there’s so much ass-kissing going on in this room I’m starting to feel violated.

“And what about your foundation?” Mitzy Wehrenberg, the wife of the Secretary of Energy asks. “The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation, what do you do?”

“We provide resources, safe shelter, and legal assistance for women who are victims of sexual or domestic violence, and children who come from abusive homes.”

“That’s so noble,” Jamila says, placing a hand over her heart as though she’s been deeply touched. “You know, I would love to organize an event together to raise awareness for your foundation. I’m sure you know, but Gerald is a primary candidate for President of the United States. I just know that he could bring so much attention to your cause.”

“That sounds great.” I glance around the room, feeling a strange hunger suddenly directed at me that makes me want to escape. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”

I can see the argument on each and every one of their faces, but I ignore the silent pleas and scurry from the room. Luke is leaning against the wall of the foyer just outside the door, typing on the keyboard of his phone.

“Important security business?” I check, he looks up and frowns.

“Uh… sure.”

“Sure?”

“I mean, I’m just coordinating with the team on the perimeter. Everything’s quiet.”

“Feel like coordinating my great escape, instead?” I ask with a dark laugh. He raises an eyebrow at me.

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah.” I sigh. “I just didn’t expect the whole ‘men go one way, women go another’ thing. I don’t have Christian to shield me and they’re all so busy talking over each other and interjecting themselves into everything I say that I’m starting to feel like an animal on display at the zoo. I don’t get it, they all seem to know one another but none of them are talking to each other. Only me.”

He chuckles. “You really don’t get what your husband just did, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

I mean he’s changed the entire course of the fucking future, Anastasia. It’s not just solving the energy crisis or reversing climate change. He’s made things like the kind of deep space exploration you see in Star Trek possible.  He’s reached out to organizations that help developing nations to give them the infrastructure that will lift millions of people out of poverty. Billions, maybe. Historians are going to talk about him the way we talk about Edison, or DiVinci, or Galileo.” He pauses, and takes a step closer to me. “Oil prices have been in freefall since the announcement. Each and every day Endurance exists, it becomes more and more valuable. I overheard a little bit of what they’re talking about in his office, and they’re throwing out numbers in the billions, Ana. Multiple billions.”

“I know! But what does that have to do with the women acting like lost puppies in my sitting room right now?”

He rolls his eyes. “Your net worth is about to be more than a lot of entire ass countries. That’s power, Steele, and that’s what tonight is about. Those women in there are just waiting for you to tell them what you want so that they can give it to you. And, in return, they’ll expect you to donate to their husband’s re-election campaigns, dump money into their Super PACs, and fund their pet projects. This is an exchange, you just need to figure out what you want.”

I think about that for a moment. Even when we thought we were about to lose everything, I’d never worried myself too much over the amount of money spread between Christian’s bank accounts. I could live at his side just as easily as I do now if he had absolutely nothing. Power is his kink. To me it feels a little… daunting.

That is what the uncertainty brewing in my gut means, isn’t it?

“Mrs. Grey?” a waiter asks. He approaches cautiously, like he’s worried he’s interrupting something important between Luke and I.

“Yes?”

“Dinner is being served.”

“Oh, great.” I turn back to Luke and gesture back to the room I just vacated with a nod of my head. “Will you let them know and I’ll go get Christian?”

“Sure thing, Mrs. Grey.”

This time, I don’t even hesitate. I reach back and, with as much force I can muster while I’m balancing on my heels, I punch him right in the bicep. He lets out a sharp yell and reaches up to cup the sore muscle.

“Owe! What the hell, Ana?”

“I told you if you called me Mrs. Grey one more time…”

He glares at me, then shakes his head. “Oh, you just wait, I’m going to get you so bad later.”

“I’ll look forward to watching you try.” I give him a simpering smile, then turn for Christian’s office. I can hear him still muttering threats under his breath as I round the corner.

“Christian?” I knock softly on the half-opened door and take a step inside. The men all turn to look at me, though Christian is the only one who doesn’t seem angered by my interruption.

“Yes, baby?”

“Dinner is being served, if you’d like to join us in the dining room.”

“Impeccable timing,” he says, smiling. Then he rises from his seat and motions for the other men in the room to do the same. Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly after what Luke just told me, the men do exactly as he says, as though they’re a pack of trained German Shepherds.

I take the hand Christian offers me and walk with him from his office, falling into the background as their conversation picks up where I’d interrupted them. We emerge in the dining room to find the wives already seated, finally chatting amongst themselves. The men file into the empty seats dotted between them.

“Would you look at that?” Cynthia says, when she looks up and sees Christian pull my chair out for me. She turns and smacks her husband lightly across his sport coat. “You see, that is chivalry. How come you never dote on me like that?”

Her husband ignores her.

“It’s like I was saying, Grey,” he begins instead. “Your vision is noble, but you’re never going to achieve it without the intervention of the United States government.”

“Hence why I’ve invited you here this evening.” 

“So, we have a deal?” 

“We’ve always had a deal. At $70 billion.”

The Senator shakes his head. “I can’t get that without going through Congress.” 

“Then I suggest you go to Congress.” 

“The Senate is controlled by conservatives,” Senator Blandino interjects. “We won’t get $70 billion for anything but war.” 

“Perhaps they’ll change their minds when the United States starts dramatically falling behind the rest of the world in energy production. My company has already been contacted by the leaders of several foreign governments who seem much less hesitant to give me what I’m asking for…” 

That makes several of the officials around the table straighten nervously. “Which governments?” the Army officer with three stars displayed across his chest asks from across the table. 

Christian shrugs and takes a very lazy drink of wine. “Why don’t you go pull up a list of every member of the United Nations. That ought to give you a good idea.” 

Anxious looks fly around me, and Senator Hadfield clears his throat. “I think we’d all agree that it is in all of our best interest as Americans to see our country and our economy thrive. You seem to be the one with your thumb on that pulse right now, Grey. Perhaps you should think of it as service to your country.”

“You see, that’s the problem, Senator. I don’t much care about service to my country, and what you’re asking for is practically welfare.”

“That’s interesting,” Senator Hadfield says, then he turns to me. “Mrs. Grey, your father served in the military, isn’t that right?”

I nod. “Yes, he was a Captain in the Army.”

“An impressive one,” the Army officer speaks up. “I checked his service records and they’re exemplary. He fought in Desert Storm, deployed to Afghanistan three days after September 11th, and two tours in Iraq. He received a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery fighting along the Syrian border. You should be proud.”

“I am. Very.”

“He was in an insurgent attack a few months before his discharge,” the man continues. “Eight men were lost under heavy artillery and airstrikes. That must have been extremely traumatic for him.”

“What?”

The man’s brow crinkles. “Surely you know he received a medal of valor?”

“Yes, for saving a man’s life…”

Three men’s lives. He pulled them out of a burning building after it had sustained several minutes of bombing.”

My face goes blank, and Christian moves his hand to my knee under the table. “General, Captain Steele has chosen to keep much of the experiences he endured during his time in Iraq private. I wish you would respect his wishes. There’s no reason to worry my wife over things that have already happened and are now in the past.”

“My apologies, Mr. Grey. I wasn’t aware… but it brings me back to my point. That building was merely a casualty alongside the insurgents’ real target. A petroleum reserve. Had we had Endurance, there would have been no target. No fuel for the flames that ignited that structure. It’s possible Captain Steele would have never been in that building.”

I feel a heavy thud in my chest, then turn wearily to Christian. He’s already staring at me.

“With Endurance,” another of the military officials continues, “ Our armed forces will be more prepared to face siege under enemy fire than we’ve ever been. No more will our boys be put in danger by a cargo truck in a caravan transporting gasoline, or have their lives put in jeopardy because they have to refuel in enemy territory. Think of the airmen who won’t be lost in a mission because they won’t run out of fuel somewhere over the ocean. Think of all the military men, like Captain Steele, whose lives could be saved by this technology.”

Christian glances at the man in uniform across from him, then back at me. There’s a conflict in his eyes, but I can’t read what it is. Before I figure it out, he squeezes my hand under the table and turns back to Congressman Fox.

“Do you know why I started this project, Congressman?” 

“No, I’m afraid I don’t.” 

“During my wife’s final year at Harvard, she was relentlessly stalked and threatened by a man who had a vendetta against me. She was terrified, and I did everything I was supposed to do. I went to the police. Several times, in fact. But they never did anything to help her. To protect her. By the end, it became glaringly obvious that the police were actually helping the man terrorizing my family.”

“I uh… I’m very sorry, Mr. Grey. That must have been a terribly uncomfortable situation…”

“Uncomfortable? That man sent people into my home who murdered my nanny and held a gun to the head of my two month old daughter. That man fired on my security team, on his own people, and on me. He tried to take my wife so he could rape her, and it was not the police who stopped him. It was the police who created the diversion that almost let him get away with it. Does that sound uncomfortable to you?”

A fork drops on a plate, and I briefly glance at Mitzy to find she’s suddenly gone as pale as a ghost. Christian squeezes my knee under the table, checking on me. I have a vague idea where he may be going with this, so I take a breath to calm my pounding heart, reach down, and squeeze back. 

I’m okay. Keep going.

“The officers who helped that man come after the people I love are still hiding in the Seattle Police Department,” Christian continues.  “The city’s revenue shortfalls this year mean there isn’t money for an investigation and without one we’ll never get justice. I’ve tried to give them the money myself, but apparently… there’s a conflict of interest. Can you get me the names of those officers, Senator?”

He blinks for a moment, then his eyes shift to the government officials around the table. One by one, they start to nod. “Uh, yeah. Yes, I could pull some strings and reallocate some funds for an investigation. We’ll call it a routine examination of police misconduct.”

“Then I might just be willing to make a deal,” Christian adds. “In the interest of serving my country.” 

Every single person around the table perks up. “You would?” 

“As long as the contract is very clear that any Endurance technology will remain entirely under GEH control.” 

“Well now, let’s not be unreasonable, Grey. Do you know the kind of clearance you’d have to get to have access to the things Endurance will be integrated with?” 

“I assume it’ll probably be fairly high.” 

The Congressman starts to grind his teeth, so I turn to him with a clueless kind of smile. “You know, Jamilla and I were just talking earlier this evening about how wonderful it would be to have this deal made by tonight. It would give us such a wonderful opportunity to stay connected and work closely together, possibly on a fundraising event for your presidential campaign. How much am I allowed to donate to your super pac, Jamilla?”

“No limit,” she squeaks.

 “Interesting.”

Jamilla starts to glow and turns excited eyes on her husband. The muscles in his face go tight as he turns to Senator Blandino. “Technically, he’s the only fusion energy expert in the world. We might need him and his company regardless. I say we make the deal, and we get him the clearance.” 

There’s a murmur of agreement around the table that eventually reaches Senator Blandino.

“Then, I think we have a deal.” He reaches across the table to shake Christian’s hand, which Christian takes with a firm grip and a triumphant grin. 

“Well, I don’t think we need to intrude on your evening any more,” Senator Takahashi says, getting to his feet. The elegant dinner laid out in front of us has only been half eaten and there hasn’t even been mention yet of the cobbler waiting for dessert, but that doesn’t phase any of them. It’s clear, as they file out, that they came for that handshake. Now that they have it, they’re done with us. It makes me nervous about the promise that was just made to me.

“Thank you for an excellent evening, Grey,” Congressman Fox says, reaching out to shake Christian’s hand one last time. “You might be just about to become the richest man in the world, my good friend.”

Christian puts an arm around me. “I already am.”

With a nod, our guests turn to file out of the foyer, but Christian calls out to stop the imposing one near the back.

“Yes, Mr. Grey?” Senator Blandino asks, turning back to face us.

“My head of security, Jason Taylor, will be reaching out to your office this week regarding the investigation. I expect it will be done extremely timely.”

“Right. Yes. Very good.” He gives us an awkward smile, then turns to leave. I don’t even get to watch the door close before Christian sweeps me up into his arms.

“I can’t believe you did that,” I say, breathlessly. “I’d given up on that. I didn’t think…” 

He pulls back and grabs my chin, holding my face so that he can hold my gaze. “I told you that I would protect you. I told you that no one would come for us ever again. I’m going to take over the world, Anastasia. And I’m going to rule it for you.” 

He leans down and kisses me, but I’m smiling so broadly that it’s difficult for him to find any kind of real purchase. He doesn’t seem bothered. In fact, it makes him grin too. 

“And the way you came in at the end to set the stakes. To seal the deal. I knew we were a good team but you… you were magnificent. I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, but you have me rock-fucking-hard.”

He reaches down and sweeps me into his arms, and I let out an elated shriek as he starts up the stairs. He dumps me on the bed the moment we’re in the bedroom and then towers over me. The look in his eyes instantly makes me wet.

“I’m going to make you safe word,” he says, and the desperate need on my face instantly goes cold.

“What? What did I do?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not a punishment, Ana. This is a reward. I’m going to make you come until you say ‘red.’”

“What?”

He gives me a crooked smile, then crawls onto the bed, over the top of me. His mouth sinks into mine, pushing deep into me. I’m just getting lost in his kiss, when he pulls back.

“Just for tonight,” he says, so softly I can barely hear him. “You may come for my fingers.”

I shudder with pleasure at the thought, then moan as his lips start moving down my body. He peels my dress off me slowly, kissing each new inch of skin he exposes until he slips the fabric completely off of me. When he removes my panties, he purposefully holds my gaze, then he slowly lowers them into his back pocket. 

Fuck.

His lips wrap around my big toe, and his hands massage the arches of my feet. His tongue begins the journey up my ankle, then my calf, my knee, my thigh… all the way up until he’s hovering over my clit with his lips.

“I love you, Anastasia. And I am incredibly proud to have you by my side. I want you to think about that while you scream for me.” Then his mouth is on me. He’s slow at first, taking his time as he licks the arousal around my lips and sucks gently at my clit. The closer I get to orgasm, the more aggressive he becomes. His tongue flicks against me so intensely, I try to pull away from him. His hands lock down on my hips, pulling me back to his mouth, and he starts to suck again. The warmth comes in pulses, with every pull of his lips. It starts between my legs, then works its way up my stomach, through my arms, down to my toes, and eventually out my mouth.

“Fuck, Christian! I’m coming!”

“Don’t hold back, baby.” I writhe under his tongue, the pleasure intensifying to a degree that has my back arched so high off the bed I almost feel like I’m floating. A small voice in the back of my head wonders why he isn’t more concerned about keeping me quiet. Calliope is asleep just down the hall, after all. But he never moves to silence me. He seems to revel in the sound of his name echoing around the room.

“One,” he pants, lifting up just enough to free his erection and plunge it inside of me. I scream again, then push back on his cock until I erupt for the second time. He rides me hard through two more orgasms before he loses himself. With a sharp hiss, he pulls out of me and strokes his cock until ropes of come fly out across my stomach. The moment his hand stops moving, he moves his face back between my legs.

“Oh my god! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

“God isn’t about to make you come, baby,” he growls against me. “Say my name.” 

“Christian!” With his fingers plunging in and out of me, it’s not long before he pulls another orgasm out, and by the time I come down, I’m starting to understand how you could be forced to safe word with too many orgasms.

“Wait,” I pant, pushing against him as he positions his once again fully stiff cock at my entrance. His hands wrap around my wrists and force them over my head as he drives in.

“That’s not a safe word.”

I pant with exertion, whimpering slightly with each thrust. It’s heaven, it’s hell. It’s too much, it’s too little. He’s suffocating me, he’s not holding me close enough. I can feel his come slipping messily between our bodies while he pounds into me, and that in itself is enough to set me off again. Tears pour from my eyes as I unravel for the sixth time.

“Christian…” I whine in protest. He pauses, but his hands keep their death grip on my body.

“Do you want to say something to me, Anastasia?”

I let my mouth fall open, but no words come out. I can’t tell him to stop. I never want him to stop. Even if it’s too much, even if it’s overwhelming, even if it’s gone past pleasure and leaves me writhing in pain, I don’t ever want him to stop. I want his hands and his lips on me. I want him as close as is physically possible, and he can’t get there without being inside of me.

“I’m waiting,” he says. A finger slides into me, then another, and he starts to pump them in and out. “Ana…”

“I don’t have anything to say,” I moan, and he grins.

“Good. Give me your phone.”

“My pho—“ His fingers pull out and he slaps me hard over the clit, making me cry out with pain. I squirm away from it, but the shocks from the impact shooting down my legs from the contact aren’t tormenting. They’re electrifying.

“I didn’t ask for backtalk, I asked for your fucking phone.”

I turn for the nightstand and take my iPhone off the charger. He opens the camera and points it directly between my legs, shooting a video of his fingers fucking me all the way to orgasm. Then he makes me watch it while he goes down on me again.

“I can’t… oh, FUCK!” I scream as the orgasm I’ve lost count of swallows me. I’m limp, my body covered in sweat. My insides are throbbing. When he flips me over, I can barely hold my hips up high enough for him to thrust in again, and I’m so swollen from his assault that he has to force his way through my tight walls.

“You’re not going to keep me out, Ana. You. Belong. To. Me.” He grunts with the effort of each thrust and it drives me into something deep and savage. As he hammers his way in and out, the things he says to me are so filthy and depraved that I know he’s beyond rational thought himself. We’re animals, lost in a carnality that has the power to erase us both as we blow each other’s minds over and over again. I don’t even know if I’m screaming anymore. If I’m making any noise at all. The only thing I can think of or feel is every inch of his cock sliding against my slick, sensitive lips. I couldn’t even tell you how many times he makes me come before finally emptying himself inside of me.

“Red,” I sob when he turns me back on my back and moves to plunge his fingers in me again. “Red, red, red.”

“Shhh.” His entire demeanor changes in an instant. His hands disappear from my skin, and his weight lifts from my body. He moves to the side of me, hovering next to me until I give him permission to touch me again. But I can’t. I don’t even think I can speak.

“Ana? Are you okay?”

I let my head roll over the pillow to face him. “Who’s Ana?”

He laughs, then scoots as close as he can without pressing himself against me. His eyes shine down on me with pride and love. “I want to kiss you, but you safeworded. I won’t touch you again until you tell me you want me to.”

I nod and his lips lower to mine. None of the libidinous fire that existed between us just a minute ago lingers in his kiss. It’s soft, deep, and filled with a thousand confessions of his feelings for me. I soak it all in, bathe in the feeling, until he pulls away.

“I have to go to China at the end of next week,” he says at last. “I’d like you to go with me.”

I blink. “Excuse me?”

“I’ve been invited to the Grand Palace in Beijing to discuss Endurance with the Chinese government.”

“That’s very fancy, Mr. Grey.”

“It is. And, I’m told, a great honor. One I’d like to share with you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’d like you to come with me. In fact, from now on, I always want you to come with me. I’ve spent enough time away from you, I’ve missed enough of Calliope’s milestones. I don’t want to do that anymore. I amassed this power so that I can do whatever I want, and what I want is to be with you. All the time.”

“That’s very sweet, but I can’t go to China next week. I’m flying to New York on Monday for my app release.”

“So, I’ll go with you. We’ll spend a few days in New York, then we’ll come home to refuel and pick up Calliope, and be on our way.”

“It’s not that easy, Christian. Don’t you realize how much work I’m going to have to do after the app launches.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to work overseas, and you can work on the flight. Besides, it might be good for you to not see the numbers from your release right away. It would be… healthy if you gave yourself a few days to be successful before you start thinking you’re a failure.”

“That’s not a bad point…”

“No, it’s not. Come to China with me.”

I take a deep breath, mulling it over. “But Carmen—”

“Don’t worry about Carmen Gallagher. If necessary, I will deal with her.”

I laugh, then shake my head. “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”

“I know. You’re a Grey.” He grins, then kisses me once more. “Come to China with me, Ana.”

It takes several seconds to mull it over, but it’s him that makes up my mind. Not just the words he’s given me, but the way he looks at me. The way his hands absentmindedly brush over my skin and leave goose bumps behind. Why the hell would I want to spend any time away from him either?

“Okay,” I agree.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

He grins in victory, then lowers his lips to mine again.

Next Chapter

Chapter 35

Barney holds open the conference door for me, and I practically float past him. This is actually happening, and in exactly the way I want it to. Everything has gone so perfectly that if Barney weren’t just as good at managing my anxiety as he was at programming, I’d probably be preparing myself to be walloped with a sidewinder that was about to bring everything crashing down. 

As it is, I’m practically euphoric.

“I’ll send the file with the raw library data now so you’ll have it by the time you get back to GEH,” I tell him. “How soon do you think I’ll get to see the beta app with content?” 

“We’ve already programmed the testing criteria, so as long as your file translates into the system correctly, I can get you an updated version within twenty-four hours of the first load.”

“Really?” 

“Of course. I fully expect to be completely finished by the end of the weekend. We’ll have days to fuck…” His words halt and he grimaces as he looks up at me. “Uh… sorry. We’ll have days to mess around with it to try and find any bugs. Plenty of time to get them fixed before the launch.” 

“That’s excellent. And you don’t need to apologize.” I lean in, like I’m going to give him the low down on some juicy gossip. “I’m just as fucking excited as you are.” He laughs, then he seems to relax a little.

“You know there’s a joke we tell in R&D that Grey always gets what he wants because he’s got B.D.E., but that can’t be it because you’ve got it to.” 

“B.D.E.?”  

His cheeks pink and once again he looks at me with slight embarrassment. “Uh… Big Dick Energy. It’s more of a swagger really, like… the way he holds himself. It makes people listen to him and you have that. It’s almost like the two of you are so similar that you move the same.”

“Nah.” I wave him off. “He’s just got me well trained.” 

“Yeah, I think he’s got us all well trained. It’s his world and we just live in it.”

“Thankfully, he’s a benevolent dictator.” 

“Ha! To you, maybe.”

I laugh and Barney joins in as we make our way to the doors. After repeating my standing request to keep me informed of any major developments between now and our next meeting, he humors me with a good natured smile and wishes me a good afternoon before he makes his exit. I feel a giddy rush of excitement over the constant deluge of good news he’s given me, then take a lap through the floor to check-in with my people. I end up lingering a little too long at Luke’s desk, so by the time I make it to my own office and sit down in front of my computer, my inbox is full. Unfortunately, the email waiting for me at the top of the pile isn’t from one of my editors. It’s from Carmen.


From: Carmen Gallagher

Subject: Quarterly Sales Reports

Date: August 6th 2012   10:45 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Attachment: 2012 Q3 Sales.exe

I’m not happy, and I’m running out of patience.

Carmen Gallagher

CEO, Gallagher Corporation


I click on the attachment the accounting team presented her in their meeting this morning and cringe at the numbers glaring back at me. They’re dismal. The Black Rose is reflected here, which only drags down the average from Stevens’ and Jacki’s releases. After that, there’s an entire month and a half where hardly any sales were made at all. Though, I was prepared for that and Carmen should have been too. 

She was the one who only gave me one more release and put ridiculous criteria on it.

So, it’s not the financials that bother me. It’s the patience part of the email that dampens the elation I feel following my meeting with Barney. Greenwich Library aside, I’m still looking for our next traditional bestseller, but the sort of title Carmen has tasked me with pulling in is a nearly impossible feat for the size of our press. We don’t attract the authors who already have a significant following and can command those kinds of sales. Finding an undiscovered author who is good enough to pull in 50,000 units sold on their first title and who doesn’t have the confidence in their talent to go straight to a big five publisher is like trying to find a specific drop of water in a lake.

And I still have to compete with Christian. 

Grey Publishing remains the dominant small press in Seattle, especially after The Black Rose fiasco, and every time I’ve gotten close to finding my very own white peacock, Elizabeth Morgan has swooped in and stolen it out from under me. 

I exit out of Carmen’s email without replying and dig in to a dark comedy Roger forwarded to me, telling myself that today is the day I’m going to make my big discovery. It has promise, but only for the Greenwich Library. As I type that into my response to Roger, the paging tone on my desk phone breaks the silence around me.

“Ana, you’ve got a call on line one,” Penny says. “It’s your agent.”

I frown and turn to my phone, pressing my finger into the button next to the blinking red light and bringing the handset to my ear. “Hey, Lydia. What’s up?”

“Oh you know, just checking in. Seeing if you need anything. Like… instructions on how to send me your manuscript. It’s really easy. I’ll send you something that you can respond to so you don’t even have to look up my contact information. All you have to do is drag…”

“I’m aware of the process of sending an email, Lydia.”

“That seems suspicious considering you’ve been editing since June and it’s August now, but I still don’t have that gold mine in my hot little hands. The Grey brand is hot, hot, hot right now, Anastasia. We’ve got to capitalize on it.”

I snort. “Don’t you think I’ve given you enough to capitalize on considering I handed my best author over to you, already?”

Hailey Lewis?” Lydia lets out a harsh, very unimpressed laugh. “No, what you did was pass off one of your fans to me who practically idol worships everything you say to her own detriment. I got her an offer from Scholastic, you know what she said? No. She wants to work with smaller publishers so that she can have more control and be more involved in the process from start to finish. Where do you think she got an insane idea like that from, Anastasia?” She emphasizes my name to make it her answer, but I ignore the slight because everything else she says has my interest peaked.

“She wants to work with a small publisher?”

Lydia makes a disgusted sound. “Of all the ridiculous things… No offense.”

“I’ve got to go,” I tell her quickly, already pulling the receiver from my ear. I can hear her distant protests before I set the handset in its cradle, but I ignore them, hang up, and bolt to my office door. “Abby, can you get Hailey Lewis on the phone for me?”

“Uh… sure thing.” I catch a brief glimpse of my assistant moving to the computer so she can access our contact files before I close the door. Then I pace my office floor until I get the page telling me Hailey is on the phone. “Line one, Ana.”

“Hailey?” I start a little too urgently. She hesitates before she responds, so I force myself to take a deep breath and calm down before I scare her off.

“Hey, Ana… What can I do for you? Please tell me you’re about to release another book. It’s rough out there right now, and I’m dying for some good content.”

“No, I’m actually calling to talk to you about yours. I just got off the phone with Lydia and she told me that you’d backed out of a deal with Scholastic because you wanted to work with a smaller publisher?”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe the contract they sent me. There was all this stuff in there about variable royalties based on tiered sales models and about waiving my rights to control the narrative if there was ever an offer for a movie deal. I’m just not ready to deal with all of that yet and I don’t want to get screwed out of something, you know? I want to work with someone who wants to help me build a career, not squeeze every dollar out of me they can.”

“I’m really glad to hear that, Hailey. Are you free this afternoon?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’d love to have you stop by my office so you and I can discuss exactly what you want out of this experience. Is 2 o’clock okay?”

“To go hang out with my hero while she gives me publishing advice? Uh… yeah.”

I laugh. “Good, I’ll send a car for you. I’m looking forward to seeing you, Hailey.”

“Me too. Bye, Ana.”

“Bye.” I hang up the phone and feel a rush of adrenaline so intense, I have to put myself through a few breathing exercises to stop from hyperventilating. Once I’m under control, I pick up the phone again and dial the extension to Luke’s desk.

“’Sup, dude?” he answers.

“Will you come in here for a minute, please?”

“Everything alright? If someone is holding you at gunpoint, say ‘waddle’.”

“Just get your ass in here.” He laughs, hangs up, and my door swings open thirty seconds later. I stare at him with an enthusiastic smile until he plops down in the chair across from me, eyeing me wearily.

“What? Did you solve the world’s energy crisis too?”

I shake my head. “No, this is so much more important than that. Do you remember Hailey Lewis?”

He scrunches his forehead briefly, trying to remember. “You were in a restaurant with her once. When I was tailing Alexis Young.”

“She’s an author,” I tell him. “She wrote Phoenix.”

“Oh, you mean the amazing book that could sell a hundred thousand copies that you gave away like an idiot.” He laughs, and I pluck a pencil out of its holder to throw at him. He deflects it, grinning at me. “Did she change her mind?”

“Yes! Lydia said she wants to work with a small publisher. I called her and she’s going to come by this afternoon. If I can get her to sign with us then all of my problems will be solved. Her manuscript is that good.”

“So how are you going to reel her in?”

“That’s the best part,” I say, leaning in conspiratorially. “She’s obsessed with Escape and it’s made her idolize me, a little. It might be a little sleazy, but I think if I just give her some personal attention I won’t have to do more than ask.”

“Well, look at you.” He smiles, proudly. “My little Annie Steele is all grown up and ready to take over the world.” 

Ready to? Bitch, I’m already half-way there.” He laughs again, but I’ve only just joined in when I have a sudden realization that has me diving for my phone. 

“What’s wrong?” he asks. I shoot him a guilty look.

“I told her I’d send her a car.” He rolls his eyes as Penny picks up the phone and dictates my instructions to Abby.

At fifteen past two, the car I’d hired to bring Hailey to GSP pulls up in front of our building. I’m waiting there with Luke and Taylor, who had to come down from GEH to keep away the paparazzi currently attacking me with questions about Christian. She steps out of the sleek town car with that same, nearly hysterical, smile plastered across her face. Her cheeks are flushed. Her eyes turn slightly glassy. I open my arms to hug her, and when she steps into my embrace, I can feel her shaking. 

“Thank you for coming, Hailey.”

She lets out a whiny squeal through her nose that is so high I can barely hear it. “Are you kidding me? Thank you for asking me to come! I feel like I’ve won the lottery or something having you basically mentoring me through this.” 

“Who’s the girl, Anastasia?” a papparzo asks as the men around him continue snapping photos of our conversation. It’s a hard fast rule with both Christian and security that I’m not supposed to engage with the paparazzi, but this isn’t about our personal lives and I’m trying to cultivate a best-seller here.

“Hailey Lewis,” I call back. “A phenomenal new author who is about to shake up the entire fiction world, mark my words.” 

The guy who’d asked the question smiles and moves toward me, pulling his camera to his face. Luke shoves him back.

“That wasn’t an invitation,” he says coldly.

“Always so violent, this one,” one of the photographers in the crowd says. Then every camera moves to Luke with the promise of a juicy new headline.

“Come on,” I say to Hailey, pulling her under my arm and turning her to the building. “Let’s go upstairs and talk.” 

Taylor lectures Luke about getting physical with the paparazzi the entire elevator ride. Both Hailey and I stand awkwardly in the corner, avoiding eye contact, while Luke is left to nod at the floor like a chastened child. He won’t challenge anything Taylor says to him, but I can tell by the twitch of tension in his jaw that he doesn’t think he was wrong. 

Honestly, I don’t think he was either. 

It can be terrifying being caught in the middle of the horde, unable to see through the flashes or hear over their shouts and questions. Luke’s gotten me out of some unnerving situations multiple times, and if the worst that comes of that is a few trashy articles about our security team abusing the paparazzi, then I’ll just ask Kate to put the power of Kavanagh Media behind us and we’ll defend him. 

“Thank you, Taylor,” I say, dismissing him the moment we step out onto our floor. He nods to me once, then moves back in the elevator, and I place a reassuring hand on Luke’s shoulder. 

“I appreciate what you do to protect me, Luke. Fuck that guy.” 

He chuckles, instantly perking up. “You know I always got your back, Steele.” 

With a smile, I turn back to Hailey and gesture for her to lead the way. She’s shaking her head when I close my office door behind us.

“See, that’s why I’m not interested in the big publishers and big contracts and big… anything. I couldn’t handle paparazzi like that. Having no privacy… how do you do it?” 

I wave her off. “Oh, they’re not here for me. The only time the paparazzi ever call my name is if it’s followed by, ‘is your husband…’. If you want to stay private, all you have to do is refrain from marrying an ambitious tech guy.” 

“Noted.” She laughs.

“So tell me about what happened with Lydia.” 

Hailey takes a deep breath and recounts essentially everything that’s happened since I left her in that restaurant with my agent months ago. She’s been put through the ringer, strung along, manipulated, told one thing and then presented with something completely different. By the time she’s finished, I’m a little surprised she’s even interested in publishing anymore.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell her. “I had tough negotiations when I published Escape too. They controlled everything. They even made me change the title.” 

“They did?” 

I nod. “I get it. Your art is personal and you want to protect it. I want to help you do that.” 

“I know.” She blushes and looks down at her hands, fighting the smile that threatens the corners of her mouth. “You feel a little like my guardian angel. You’ve inspired me. You’ve read and encouraged my work. You’ve made me feel like my voice is important. You’ve given me the avenue to publish under my own terms… I don’t know what I did to deserve your kindness, or your guidance, and I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay it.”

“You could start by working with me.” I lean on my desk, giving her the warmest look I can summon. “I want to sign you, Hailey. I want to help you bring your words and your message to the world on your terms, and I want to do it with you personally.”

Her brow furrows. “What?” 

“I’m being very honest with you when I tell you that I haven’t found anything that has inspired me the way Phoenix has since I brought you to that lunch with Lydia. Before that, even. I want to publish your story, Hailey. And I want to help you use it to launch a career.” 

She looks overwhelmed, her eyes darting quickly back and forth before she collapses against the back of her chair. “But… I thought you already did?” 

I shake my head. “I know, but I got overruled last time. It’s different now. I’m the Editor-in-Chief and it’s my call who we sign. I want that to be you.” 

“No, I mean… you already did. I just signed with Grey Publishing like four days ago. Elizabeth told me that your husband brought my manuscript to her personally. That was you… wasn’t it?” 

The smile on my face melts away into shock. “No.” 

“Then, why did Mr. Grey give her my manuscript?” 

Because he has a death wish apparently

I take a breath and smile again. “Because you’re brilliant and Grey Publishing is known for excellence. He’s a savvy businessman.”

She beams again. “We’ll still work together though, right? I mean, if I have questions or need advice… can I reach out to you?”  

“Of course.” The words come out a little strained, but I manage to keep my face pleasant. She doesn’t seem to notice and that’s good, because I mean it. It’s just that my heart is thundering in my chest so hard I can hear the blood pounding behind my ear drums and my entire body is singing with nervous energy.

She smiles and stands from her chair, so I move around the desk to wrap her in a hug.

“I can trust Elizabeth. Right, Ana?” She glances up at me, looking for reassurance. I nod.

“Yeah, Elizabeth is one of the best. You’re in good hands.” 

“Good.” She exhales in relief, then regains her smile as she turns to leave. I follow her out, but only so I can go straight to Luke’s desk after waving good-bye.

“We’re going to GEH,” I snap. He looks up at me and he must be able to read exactly what just happened on my face because his lips slowly lift his cheeks into a broad grin. 

“He didn’t…” 

“Yup.” 

Laughter follows me all the way to the parking garage and occasionally fills the otherwise quiet car. I’m happy that Luke is amused, because I’m certainly not. I sit there stewing, then silently rehearse the angry speech I’m going to hurl at my husband the entire elevator ride to his floor. 

“Hey, Ana,” Andrea greets me brightly as Luke and I emerge through the security doors. I stalk towards her desk and she frowns at my less than welcoming expression. “He’s got an important meeting in like ten minutes, but I’m guessing you don’t care about that.” 

“Not even a little,” I reply, storming past her desk. I hit the double oak doors to his office hard, throwing them open with enough force that they bounce off the walls behind them.

“You son of a bitch!” I snap, stomping forward. His eyes move up to me from his computer screen and, immediately, an amused smile touches his irresistible lips. 

“Don’t talk about my mother that way, Ana. She adores you.” 

I move past the chair I’d normally take and place my palms flat on his desk, staring straight into his ashen eyes. “I specifically told you to stay the fuck away from Phoenix. I just had Hailey Lewis in my office and she told me that she signed with Grey Publishing earlier this week.”

His smile widens. “Yes, she did. And honestly, it couldn’t have come at a moment too soon since our strongest local competitor is about to launch a subscription application that’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to contend with going forward.”

“What happened to all the talk about wanting to see me rise to the top of my industry and watching me rule over it like a Queen?”

“Nothing, I still feel that way.”

“Then why would you swipe Phoenix out from under me? You knew what that manuscript meant to me, you knew how hard I fought for her.”

“Not hard enough, clearly.”

“Oh, sorry. You’re right. I should have been strategizing on how to win Scott to her side but instead I was waiting for the EMTs to pull you out of a burning building!”

“Come on, Ana. It wasn’t burning.”

I set my jaw in place. “How did you even get her manuscript? I know she didn’t submit it through GP.”

“You store it on our home server and your password on the encryption is ‘Calliope’. You basically gave it to me.”

“No, that’s called stealing.” 

He gives me a slanted look. “Remember a few months ago when you broke into my GEH profile to access Elena Lincoln’s records?” He lifts his hands, weighing them like a scale. “Pot, meet kettle.” 

“I found her, Christian.” 

“And I signed her.” He leans back and the tight leather around his chair groans. “This is the game, baby. You are the one who wanted to play against me.”

“I’ve never done anything underhanded to Grey Publishing. I defend you. I’ve worked around Elizabeth’s bully tactics to keep from having to clash against you head on. You built my app for Christ’s sake! I thought we were a team. I thought we were going to grow together and build each other up, not go behind the other’s back to make shady deals. And you knew! This is sabotage!” Each word picks up the anger from its predecessor like an avalanche rolling down the hill. Christian’s eyes glint with delight. 

“You know, you’re incredibly sexy when you’re mad.”

Automatically, my thighs clench in reaction to his tone, my body already preparing for submission. I fight back the instinct and spit my words out at him through gritted teeth. 

“You wanna turn this into a war, then suit up, Grey.” I stand up straight and cock an eyebrow at him. “Because now I’m coming for you.” 

He smirks. “Not yet, you’re not.” 

With an irritable scoff, I whip around to storm out, which only makes him chuckle. As I yank the door back, I shoot him a death glare that only seems to humor him more, then move like a threatened animal back out to the lobby. Luke is leaning over reception, laughing at something Andrea said when I erupt from the hallway. When he glances up at me, the same heckling smile from the car returns to his face. 

“That was quick.” 

“Oh we’re not finished yet,” I snarl. “We’re not nearly finished.” 

Luke winks at Andrea. “This is gonna be fun.” 

She laughs, then looks up at a man who enters, carrying a temporary guest badge. I watch her greet him warmly, and invite him to take a seat while she lets Chrisitan know he’s arrived, then wrap my arm around Luke’s and pull him toward the elevators. On the way down I’m so heated that I can’t stop myself from pacing. I almost decide that I need to pop into Calliope’s daycare and cuddle her for a few minutes to get myself calmed down, but when I reach for the round number 7 on the elevator panel, I pause. Then I choose 4 instead.

Luke furrows his brow. “Fourth floor? That’s Grey Publishing.” 

 “I know.” The elevator dings and the doors slide open. We have to take a left down a small hallway to get to the double set of doors, and since there’s no security down here, I’m able to walk straight in. 

Claire, the receptionist, is chewing on the end of a pencil, concentrating very hard on something in front of her. When I approach her desk and cough softly, she looks at me and lights up like a snowy street at Christmas time. “Hi, Ana! What are you doing here?” 

“I just wanted to talk to Elizabeth, is she in?” 

“Yeah, let me check and make sure she’s not busy.” 

Claire picks up the phone while I glance nervously over my shoulder. The paranoid part of me is convinced Christian is going to appear at any second and bust me, but for now, it’s just Luke.

“All free,” Claire says. “Her office is just around the corner there.” 

“Thanks.” I give her a toothy smile as I move past reception, waving to the people who are still here from when I was in charge. Elizabeth’s door is closed, so I knock softly and wait for her to invite me inside.

“Come in, Ana!” 

“Hey!” I somehow manage to widen my smile even further as I step into her office and settle down in a chair across from her. This room is bigger than mine at GSP is, which makes me feel a little bit better about what I’m about to do. “How’s it going?”

She lets out a deep sigh. “Well, it would be better if you decided to scrap the Greenwich Library. Our submissions have dropped 30% over the past three weeks, and I’ve only signed two new authors.” 

Really? Excellent.

“I heard,” I lie straight through my teeth. “In fact, Christian and I were just talking about ways we could try to recruit more talent.” 

“You were? Why didn’t he ask me to join you?” 

“Oh, it was informal. I was just popping in to say hello, telling him about my day, and we started talking about work…” My hands flutter away the rest of my sentence, and I settle more comfortably in the chair. “I’m actually here because I wanted to get your opinion on hosting a joint writing conference. Christian and I were thinking it would be a good way to cement our influence in the greater publishing world while also drawing in a larger pool of new authors.” 

I’m careful to include Chrisitan in the decision making process so that she won’t immediately turn around and tattle on me. It seems to work, because I can see her considering it through her silence.

“Those conferences are a good opportunity for our agents and editors to make contacts, and it would be nice to not have to pay travel and lodging for them to go…” 

“And think of all those Grey Publishing branded marketing materials that will be sent out to collegiate English departments and the competition circuit. I bet even that will be enough to give your submission numbers a boost.” 

“That’s true.” She nods, like she hadn’t considered that angle, and then starts to smile. I’m almost sure I’ve got her when she glances up at me and creases her forehead. 

“But why do you want to do this with us? I’ve been in this rivalry with Greenwich for several years and it’s not exactly friendly. Wallace and I have nearly come to blows fighting over authors before.”

I give her the answer I would have given her this morning. “Scott’s gone, Elizabeth. It’s just me now and, from what I can tell, the only thing GSP has gotten out of this rivalry is 2nd place. I want to try something different.” 

She rocks slightly in her chair, letting my words settle before she reacts. It’s an exercise in patience, so I do my best to imitate Christian, keeping my expression passively pleasant, and staring straight back. 

“Well, I love it,” she says at last. “Honestly, it’s the perfect fix for what Grey Publishing needs right now and if you’re willing to take on half the work, I’m willing to let you do it.” 

I laugh. “That’s excellent. What does your calendar look like for October?” 

For the next fifteen minutes, we toss around ideas for dates, venues, and the types of courses and services we want to provide. The deeper into the conversation we get, the more excited Elizabeth becomes. I’m almost high off the sense of victory just at my fingertips. I can feel the power pulsating through my blood.

This must be why Christian is always at his most dominant when he’s in the middle of a hostile takeover. 

“This is going to be faaantastic,” she says, stretching her hands out for emphasis. “I can’t wait to really get started. Should we set up a weekly meeting time?” 

“I’ll have my assistant call yours,” I say, casually. Then I get up from my seat and reach a hand across her desk. “I’m really looking forward to working with you.” 

“Me too. And I gotta tell you, Ana. You left me with some big shoes to fill here. They all still think you’re kind of a legend.” 

I place a hand over my chest, trying to look taken aback, even though I really am flattered. 

“Are you kidding me? You’re so good that my people think of you like the boogeyman. When I told them Lynoel Pierce had an offer from GP, my editors said I was crazy for even trying to pursue him further because we’d never beaten you on a signing before.” 

“And you still haven’t.” She smirks and there’s an arrogance to her statement that plays right into my hands. I laugh, then shake my head in dismay as I turn for the door. Just as I’m about to step out though, I stop and turn back to face her. 

“Oh, before I forget. Would you send me a copy of your new author contract so I’ll have it on file for the conference?’ 

“Yeah.” She smiles. “Sure thing.” 

“Thanks, Elizabeth. Talk to you soon.” 

“Bye, Ana.” 

I leave the room and close the door behind me, taking a moment to pause and bask in the feeling of triumph. It was almost too easy. Maybe I wasn’t actually being facetious earlier. Maybe Christian really does have me trained. 

The thought makes me smile as I make my way out to Luke, who’s hovering awkwardly in the lobby like he’s not really sure what he should be doing. I don’t say anything to him as I wave goodbye to Claire and walk through the main door and into the hallway. He follows close behind me all the way to the elevator, respecting my silence until I reach out for the call button. 

“Well?” 

I turn a satisfied look in his direction. “I can play dirty too.”

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