Chapter 21

angry

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

“Christian, I can explain.”

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

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

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

“What?”

“How long has this been going on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was a threat.”

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

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

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

“You opened my mail?”

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

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

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

“Oh my god. Christian, I wasn’t…”

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

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

“I’m not cheating on you, Christian.”

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

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

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

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

“Anastasia–”

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

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

“Yes.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Alright. Talk.”

 

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

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

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

“I know, I’m sorry.”

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

“Because it was killing you.”

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You went to Sawyer, Anastasia!”

“Because of Lincoln!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t want to be with me.

And it’s my fault.

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

The man I love.

The man who has been everything to me.

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

 

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

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

“You came back,” I whisper.

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

“No…’

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

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

“Tell me that he means nothing to you.”

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s late. You need to go to bed.”

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

 

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

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

“Good morning. How do you feel?”

“Like I was hit by a truck.”

“Can I get you something?”

“A lobotomy?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready, Mrs. Grey?”

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

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

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

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

“Lunch then?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Christian?”

“Hm?”

“Are– are we okay?”

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

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

“Have fun.”

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

“Anastasia.”

“Yeah?”

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

“Oh… yeah.”

“Is this why?”

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

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry, Christian…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s probably fallen asleep. Relax.

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

Apparently, even my security is mad at me.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“Ana Grey.”

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

“Please don’t give me bad news…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. And Jacki?”

“Yeah?”

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

She laughs. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Is there?”

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

“Emotional?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Can I help you?” I ask.

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

“Oh, well… Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ana?”

“Woods,” Taylor calls. “Boundaries.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

“Yes,” I breathe back.

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

“Yes, Sir.

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

 

Advertisements

Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll make a call.”

“Thank you, Ana.”

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

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

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

“Right away, Mrs. Grey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God damn it.

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

“Thank you, Ms. Gallagher.”

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

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

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

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

“Tonight?” I ask.

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

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

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

He smiles. “Thank you, Mrs. Grey.”

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

“Sorry.” He blushes. “Ana.”

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

“LAVO?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

“Okay. Can I order something for you?”

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

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

“Thanks, Evan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, come on, Ana–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a water, please. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Alexis?” I ask.

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

I nod. “Yeah. Of course.”

“You ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“Mr. Beaufort?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Previous dominants?” he asks.

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

“With Elena?”

“Yes. She was very popular.”

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

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

“Then why did it end?”

“He, um… he’s deceased.”

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

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

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

This is wrong.

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

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

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

Beaufort stands. “Miss Young.”

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

“Mr. Beaufort. Sir.”

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

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

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

I shudder.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Sir.”

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

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

She raises an eyebrow. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

“I know. Thank you, Anastasia.”

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

“Alexis, wait!”

She looks back. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready to go back?” Luke asks.

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

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

“Yeah, I’ll get us a cab.”

 

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

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

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

“Are you going to tell him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christian,” I gasp.

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

I wince. “What are you doing here?”

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

Shit. He knows.

Next Chapter

Chapter 19

970b9b6aa6db94d7

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

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

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

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

“Good afternoon, Carmen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, he’s been very helpful.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Ana.”

“Evan?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So, why are you pursuing it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Luke.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

Taylor. Ask Mia.

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

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

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

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

“Uh, Mrs. Grey… Mr. Grey–”

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

“But, Ana–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“What did Taylor say to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anastasia,” she pants.

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

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

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

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

“I couldn’t wait.”

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

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

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

“Iced tea, please. Alexis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to know why.”

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

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

“Why? Is someone threatening you?”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Then why are you following my family?”

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

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

“I was trying to protect him.”

“Lincoln?”

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

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

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

Hyun.

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

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

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

“Alexis…”

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

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

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

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

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

“So why are you following us?”

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

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

“He’s not easy to find.”

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

“Then why are you coming after him?”

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

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

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

“We love each other.”

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

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

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

“And you think he’ll take you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unobtainable. What a fitting metaphor.”

“We’ll see.”

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

“I’m listening…”

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

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

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

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

Oh, I’ll make sure that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How dare you!”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

“If his investigation is ever done…”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I freeze, then sit bolt upright. Elena Lincoln.

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

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

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

“Hey, you almost finished?” Christian asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how do those people meet each other?”

He shrugs. “Networking.”

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

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

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

“And you know people?”

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

“How do you know?”

“I introduced him to Elena.”

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

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

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

“Meet me upstairs in five minutes.”

I nod. “Yes, Sir.”

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

 

From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Found.

Date: May 14th 2012, 10:43 PM

To: Luke Sawyer

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

X

Ana

 

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

Next Chapter

Chapter 18

glen-echo-park-carousel

Note: This chapter was finished very late last night and there was no time for a beta. Please forgive any mistakes.

“Okay, then blend on medium speed for about two minutes.” I pick up the mixer next to my bowl of ingredients, then cringe away as the beaters whir to life in case any chocolate batter sprays back at me. Thankfully, my undoubtedly Food Network level proficient skills with a hand mixer mean I stay dry, and as I watch the ingredients meld together in a luscious ribbon of dark, fudgy chocolate, my mind starts to wander back to the manuscript that has occupied nearly every thought I’ve had for the past four weeks.

What if we just cut the entire part where he goes to London? The killer is in Boston, that whole chapter is just a red herring and it’s the slowest part of the plot.

Keeping my eyes focused on the task at hand, I carefully lean over and stretch my fingers over the countertop until I can just barely touch the corner of the open Black Rose manuscript and pull it towards me. With a flick of a switch, I kill the power to the mixer, pull out one of the beaters, and lick it thoughtfully as I turn through the pages.

Shit. If we take out London, he’ll never meet the cobbler and that’s the key to the shoe print evidence that leads him to…

“How’s it going in here?”

I turn and see Christian standing in the doorway with Calliope in his arms. She’s already dressed in the party dress we bought for her last week and she looks just like a princess, all in white with a tulle skirt that billows around her like a ball gown. Tied around her waist is a deep navy blue bow that’s almost as big as she is.

I gasp. “Oh my god, look at you, birthday girl!”

Pity!” she chirps, the excitement and pride clear on her face as her fingers curl around her skirts. Christian grins and leans over to kiss her mahogany curls.

“Not just pretty,” he says. “You’re beautiful, baby girl.”

“Just like a princess.” I walk towards them and kiss my baby all over her face, before moving up and leaving a more lingering kiss against Christian’s lips. “How was your daddy/daughter breakfast?”

“Just shy of perfect.” I frown, and he reaches up to run the back of his fingers lovingly over my cheek. “We both missed you.”

I smile and lean in to kiss him again, but Calliope reaches out with her hand and pushes against my face to stop me. “No, Mama.”

“Well maybe not both of you,” I laugh, then nibble on her fingers before turning back to her cake.

“You don’t have to do this,” Christian says, following me back to the counter. “I wanted to make this as easy as possible for you.”

“I know.” In truth, the 2nd cake is a bit excessive. He’s already ordered a gargantuan, four tier masterpiece from the same fancy bakery we used for our wedding cake. The final design is beautiful, with fresh fruit and flowers used as decoration over vanilla buttercream, but it didn’t feel right to me to let someone else bake my daughter’s very first birthday cake. So, I decided to go the traditional route and bake her a small cake that will be all her own.

He sighs, but nods. “Andrea should be arriving soon. She’ll be coordinating the florists, the cake delivery, and the caterers. The people from the petting zoo should be here within the hour to start setting up and we need them to be finished before the crew from Carnival Days gets here to set up the carousel and ferris wheel. Other than that, it’s just actresses I’ve hired to play the Disney Princesses and we’re all set.”

“All eleven of them,” I say, rolling my eyes.

“She’s too young to have a favorite princess, I didn’t want to be exclusionary.”

“Don’t you think this is all a little over the top? I mean, she’s only a year old, Christian. She’s not even going to remember this party.”

“Maybe not. But I will. And I want to look back and remember how happy my baby girl was on her very first birthday.”

The sincerity in his eyes makes my throat tighten. “Well, I guess there’s no arguing with that.”

“Good.” He leans over and brushes his hand softly through my hair before pulling me into him and kissing me deeply. I hum with content, but as he pulls away, his eyes fall on the counter and the still open manuscript I’ve left sitting there. “I don’t think so, Anastasia. No working on our daughter’s birthday.”

I narrow my eyes. “Christian Grey telling me not to work. Which of the two of us has been at the office six nights a week for the last month and getting home later and later each day?”

“But not today.” There’s a smugness to his argument as he reaches behind me for the manuscript and tucks it under his elbow. “I’ll leave this in your office. If you go back for it, you’ll have to give your Monday morning meetings standing up.”

As he turns to leave, I bite my lip and shiver under the rush of endorphins that flow through me. I’d been scared that my unexpected ‘red’ last month would scare away Christian’s kinkier side. Every night for the rest of that week, he’d made love to me. Sweet, slow, passionate love. But as the days turned to one week, then two, I started to crave his rougher side again. I didn’t know what to do. For days, I’d cursed my need to take back control in that moment, thinking of it as weakness, and went so far as to practice in the mirror how I was going to broach talking to him about how I was feeling. I had a whole speech planned out, but when I purposefully dressed in the most bondage-esque lingerie I owned and prepared to give it, my concerns turned out to be completely unfounded.

“Ana, if you want to play, all you have to do is ask.”

“But I thought, maybe, you wouldn’t want to after I’d safe worded.”

“I told you not to be ashamed of that.”

“But–”

“But nothing. I’m glad you did. You needed me to stop, and you told me. That’s all that word is for. You’re not taking something away from me, you’re not being weak, you’re communicating. And that, above all else, is what I need from you. I want you to talk to me about the things you want, and I want you to tell me to stop before I ever go too far.”

“So, you’re not mad?”

“Quite the opposite actually.”

“And…” I bite my lip. “You wouldn’t be opposed to maybe tying me up a little tonight?”

His face stretches into a deviant, sexy smirk. “Oh baby, I’m prepared to do a whole lot more than just tying you up. Now that I know you’ll stop me if it’s too much, I can trust you enough to really test your limits.”

And he has. Nothing too over the top, just new and different toys, restraints, and positions. In the wake of that night, he somehow seems more free. More confident.

More dominant.

Even this morning, I still have a faint red line around each of my wrists from where he’d zip tied me to the curtain rod over our window the previous night and tortured me with a vibrator while he told me all the ways he was going to make me come. I shudder with pleasure at the memory, until Calliope comes prancing back into the kitchen, looking interestedly at the batter I’m pouring into cake pans.

“Come here, sweetie.” I dip my finger into what’s left of the chocolate in the bowl and offer it to her. She’s never had cake before, let alone batter, so she stares at the brown goop cautiously. But after finally accepting a taste, her eyes widen with pure, unfiltered joy.

“Yummy!”

I giggle. “That’s called cake, and you get to eat that on your birthday. Do you know what today is?”

“Me!”

“That’s right! It’s your birthday. You’re one whole year old today.” It hurts to say those words out loud, to admit she’s not my little baby anymore, but I don’t let any disappointment in how fast this year really has gone by show on my face. I pick her up high into the air and spin her around, relishing in her giggles, until the doorbell rings.

“Who’s that?” I ask her.

“Gigi?” Otherwise known as Grandma.

“Let’s go check.” I bring her down and settle her on my hip, then head for the front door where we find, not Grace, but Andrea standing on our doorstep.

“Hi, Callie!” she squeals as I step aside to let her in. “Happy Birthday!”

“Me!”

I laugh. “That’s about as good as we’ve been able to get in terms of birthday.”

“Well, what more do you need?” She grins, then leans in to give me a hug. “How have you been? It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you around the office.”

“Yeah, well… I have to make myself scarce around Grey Publishing. Corporate espionage and all that.”

“Can’t have that.” She turns and beams at Calliope again. “My goodness, this dress turned out so beautiful.”

“Christian demanded we have something custom made. I thought it was going to be our one big splurge for the party and then he ordered a circus.”

She laughs. “Of course he did. You know, after last year, I would have never thought that man could love anything as much as he loves you. But this little one gives you a run for your money.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty hard not to fall under her spell.”

“We sure do miss having her so close,” she sighs. “Especially with all the fallout from the fusion project.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was just nice when he was able to visit her during the day. Sometimes, if he was having a bad day and taking it out on everyone, Ms. Bailey would go down and pull Calliope out of daycare and bring her up to him. He’d be fine after that.”

“Really? Well, uh…”

“I’m sorry, Ana. I didn’t mean to… I mean, we get it. It was just nice having her around is all.” She smiles brightly at me and wiggles her fingers at Calliope again, but the doorbell rings before I can change the subject. “I guess that’s for me,” she says. “I’ll take it from here, Ana. Mr. Grey’s orders.”

“Thank you, Andrea.” With a grateful smile, I turn back to the living room, where Christian and I spend the rest of the morning playing tea party with our little princess.

The last bolts are being screwed into the Ferris Wheel newly erected in our back yard when Christian and I take Calliope upstairs for her nap. He tries to use the little time we have before the first guests arrive to check his emails and look over a few of the new acquisition contracts left over from the previous week, but after insisting that he himself said that we weren’t to work today, I’m able to drag him down in the kitchen with me to frost Calliope’s smash cake.

“This is delicious,” he said through a mouthful of homemade chocolate frosting.

“But it would be a lot more effective if a little more of it made it onto the cake instead of into your mouth.”

“That sounds much less enticing.”

I give him a stern look and pick up one of the spreading knives. “Get to frosting, buddy.”

“Sure thing.” He dips his fingers back into the bowl of frosting and quickly brushes a dollop of it on my nose. My mouth drops open in indignation but he only grins back.

“So that’s how it’s going to be, then?”

“Looks like it.”

“Then just remember that you started this…”

“Don’t test me, Anastasia.”

I place my finger over the tip of the frosting spreader, pull it back, and launch bits of chocolate all over him. He licks the speck of frosting away that landed his lip and dives for me. The spatula falls to the floor as he lifts me off the ground and onto the counter. I guard myself incase there’s another chocolate attack coming my way, but his hands move up into my hair and his mouth meets mine.

“Now what am I going to do with you?”

“Love me forever and ever and ever.”

“Besides that.” He smiles again, and then his eyes look up at the pot rack hanging over the kitchen island, then at the clock, then back at me.

“Don’t you even think about it!” I tell him.

“No?” His fingers move to my sides and I devolve into a fit of giggles as he tickles me relentlessly, only managing to stop myself from falling to the floor by the strength of his fingers. I playfully plead for him to stop through my hitched breathing and laughter, and once he does he pulls me into his arms, holds me close, and kisses the crown of my head.

“Mr. Grey?”

His shoulders rise and fall, then his lips part from my hair and he looks at Taylor waiting stone faced in the doorway. “Yes, Taylor?”

“Your parents have arrived. The rest of my team is helping them carry in Miss Calliope’s presents.”

“They need help?” I repeat, and Taylor cracks a rare smile as he nods. With a last quick kiss, Christian helps me down off the counter, takes my hand, and leads me to the entryway where we find Woods and the four security guards we hired for this party carrying in so many wrapped packages, it looks like the delivery from FAO Schwartz’s annual Christmas toy drive.

“Oh my…”

“We might have gone just a little overboard,” Grace says, leaning in to kiss my cheek as she hands her coat over to Taylor. “But she only turns one once.”

“As made clear by the state of my backyard,” I reply. She beams and moves to Christian, and Carrick steps up into her place.

“I tried to stop her.”

“You did not.” He laughs, shakes his head, and pulls me into a tight hug.

“We’ve missed you, Ana. Sunday brunch hasn’t been the same without you guys.”

“I know. We’ve been meaning to get out there but we’ve just been… busy.”

Carrick looks over at Christian, blank faced, and nods. “Yeah, I imagine.” He steps to the side and reaches a hand out to Christian, while I pull Mia into my side. “How are you doing, son?”

“Great, thanks. You?”

“Really well.” They stand awkwardly before each other, clearly unsure what to say, and Grace and I exchange nervous looks.

“Knock, knock!” For the first time, I breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of that voice.

“Kim,” Christian greets her, warmly. She shrugs out of her jacket and sheepishly passes it to Taylor, before moving over to my husband and kissing each of his cheeks. “Where’s little Calliope?”

“Naptime,” he replies, and she pouts with disappointment.

“Hey, kiddo.” My dad comes through the door with a small package wrapped in the same cartoon wrapping paper he used to wrap my birthday presents in when I was a kid. I smile as I take it and then step into his open embrace.

“Hi, daddy. Thank you for driving all the way up here.”

“Oh, hush. You know we wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He kisses my cheek, then shakes Christian’s hand.

“Can we see the carnival?” Grace asks. Christian nods and as he leads the way to our backyard, my dad drapes an arm over my shoulder and gives me all the new details of a custom wood piece he’s been working on in his shop that he and Kim plan to sell at the Grays Harbor County Fair. Andrea already has punch and snacks spread out on the tables, so we gather around and chat amongst ourselves while we wait for the rest of Calliope’s guests to arrive.

There’s a lot of them. Most every child from the GEH daycare has been invited, even the ones much too old to be friends with Calliope in anyway, and along with them comes their parents. Which immediately explains the vast guest list. In addition to Ros and Welch, nearly every GEH department head is in attendance. As I make my way around the party, playing hostess, Christian and I speak with other Seattle business magnates, city councilmen, and some of the old money elites he schmoozes down at the yacht club whenever he has a big project that needs investors. Most of them have children, though one couple seems to have brought their niece, and every single one of them seems delighted by the grandeur of festivities. They get lost in business talk, congratulating Christian again and again on a recent acquisition his company has made, which they all make out to be a huge deal but he’s never mentioned to me. Honestly, most of it is hard to follow so when I see Luke and Jade appear through the patio doors, I’m only too anxious to get away and catch up with my best friend.

“Excuse me a moment,” I say politely, then squeeze Christian’s arm before turning away and hurrying up the stone steps. It’s only once I make it onto the veranda though, that I realize Luke and Jade aren’t alone. There’s an eight or nine year old girl walking a few paces behind them, glancing around nervously as she tries to stay hidden behind Jade.

“Hey, Luke!” I greet him brightly, pulling him into a hug. He squeezes me, then pulls away so I can do the same to Jade, and hands me the gift bag draped over his arm.

“This is incredible,” Jade tells me, glancing over the rides and the animals currently ripping up all my grass.

“Yeah. It’s a little much, I know…”

“No, it’s perfect. I’m sure the birthday girl is in heaven.” She winks, then pulls the girl I noticed early out from behind her. “Ana, I’d like to introduce you to my little sister, Jessica.”

I smile. “Hi, Jess. I hope you’re ready to play. There’s lots of fun stuff down there.”

“Can I go on the rides?.”

“Of course you can. I think they’re just about to do cotton candy. Do you want to go play with the other kids?” She nods, looks up to Jade for permission, and once Jade gives her the green light smile, she scurries off down the stairs to the crowd of children forming around the cotton candy machine.

“I’d better go with her,” Jade says, uncertainly. “She has a hard time opening up to people she doesn’t know and I don’t want her to feel left out.”

“Find me when you’re done,” Luke tells her. She tells him that she will and with a kiss, she turns and heads down the stairs after Jessica.

“Little sister, huh?”

“Sort of. Jade’s in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. Today was one of their outing days and somehow I knew this was going to top going to the bowling alley.”

“Oh, but that’s sweet. If you two ever break up, can I date her?”

“Absolutely, because if you ever manage to get that past Grey, you’ve earned it.” I laugh, but stop as I notice him glancing around warily.

“What?”

“Guard at the gate, back door, two on the outer perimeter, and Woods at the bottom of the stairs in the house. Is that everyone?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Yes.”

“And where’s Taylor?”

“In his office, watching on the security cameras. Why? Security not tight enough for you again?”

“No, I just want to make sure I know where all the eyes are so I can talk to you in private.”

“About wh–”

“Not here.” He takes my hand and drags me around to a small alcove where the balcony meets the house. It’s about a two foot blind spot between the security cameras on the east and south sides of the house, something only a man as ingrained in our security team as Luke was would know.

“What’s going on?”

“I think I’ve got everything we’re going to get on Alexis Young. If you want to move on this, I suggest we do it soon.”

“Have you figured out why she’s watching us?”

“No idea, but she’s spent just about every day of the last two weeks camped outside of GEH. She has to be collecting information, but I have no idea for who.”

My blood turns cold. “Okay, then we confront her and find out.”

“Ana, maybe this is something we need to get Taylor in on. She’s been dangerous in the past.”

“No. If Taylor knows about any of this, he’ll know you’ve been working for me and it won’t take him long to find out about Kozlowski or the tape we sent to the news to help Carrick’s campaign. Christian and I are finally back in a really good place, I don’t want to drag this shit back into it. We can handle this on our own.”

“I don’t know.”

“Then leave it to me. Tell me where I’ll find her and I’ll go talk to her myself.”

“Yeah, okay.” His voice is sarcastic, and he rolls his eyes to let me know that would never happen in a million years.

“Luke…”

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

“Okay. I will.” He looks at me hesitantly for a few more seconds, but there’s not time for further argument because we both hear footsteps on the concrete patio coming in our direction. I expect security, but it turns out to be Christian, which is probably worse.

“What are you doing?” he asks, eyes narrowing in on Luke.

“Just talking,” I reply, quickly stepping out of the alcove and slipping my hand into his. He looks suspiciously between the two of us for a moment, which kills me, but ultimately decides not to press the issue.

“I think it’s time we brought Calliope down,” he says instead.

“Right. Enjoy the rides, Luke.”

“Sure.”

I pull against Christian’s hand, which is required because he doesn’t seem ready to end his overly intense inspection of my best friend. Luke gives him a tight smile and moves quickly past the two of us and down the stairs, and Christian turns his hard gaze down on me.

“Just talking?”

“He’s… in a new relationship. It’s all new to him and sometimes he needs some advice. I’m his best friend.”

“Everything good between the two of them?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “Everything is going great.”

He breathes a sigh of relief and regains his previously happy composure. “Then let’s go get our baby.”

“Our one year old,” I pout dramatically, and he kisses my forehead before taking me by the hand and walking with me back into the house.

Unfortunately, Calliope isn’t quite ready to wake up when I pull her out of her crib. She fusses and fights her droopy eyelids while I change and re-dress her, and once we’ve brought her outside, she seems less concerned with the party than she is with the ends of my hair.

“There she is!” Grace says excitedly, stepping away from Kate, Elliot, and Kennedy for what I’m sure is the first time since they’ve arrived. I smile at the three of them and hurry over.

“Oh, Kate, look at her! That dress is adorable.”

“I know, right?” She beams down at the baby in her arms, her eyes alight with joy, and my heart seems to expand in my chest. Calliope, on the other hand, seems less enthused by her cousin’s arrival.

“Dada,” she says, reaching her arms out for him. He takes her from me, and Calliope gives Kennedy a warning look before burying her face in his shoulder, the way she did to me.

Elliot laughs. “Defense as the best offense, I like it.”

“I’m telling you,” Grace chimes in, “she’ll be less possessive with a little brother or sister…”

“Not gonna happen,” Christian says. He rubs her back reassuringly and tries to bring her closer to the baby, but she squirms in his arms and starts to scream. He frowns and gives Kate an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, she just woke up…”

“Oh, I know about cranky babies,” she smiles back. “But you know, she might just perk up if she gets to open some presents.” Suddenly, Calliope sits up straight and looks at Kate with wide, hopeful eyes. Clearly, presents is a word she remembers from Christmas.

“That’s my girl,” my dad says, coming up behind Elliot and clapping him on the shoulder. “Let’s get to the good stuff, huh?”

“Ray!” Kate exclaims. “Have you met our daughter yet?”

“Not yet. And Annie has told me all about how beautiful she was, but I gotta say… for a writer, her descriptions do not do this baby justice.”

“Awh.” Kate’s beams at him and tilts the baby in her arms so my dad can get a better look. His face breaks into a smile as he leans over to drink her in.

“She got a name?”

“William Howard Taft,” Elliot replies, not missing a beat, and Kate rolls her eyes.

“Kennedy. Her name is Kennedy.”

“Isn’t it perfect?” I ask, smiling at my father. He nods and reaches out to tickle her lips with his index finger.

“Everything about her is perfect. Just perfect.”

“Dada!” Calliope tugs on Christian’s collar, making it obvious to us all that she hasn’t forgotten the word presents yet, and we all laugh at the impatient look on her face.

“Okay, birthday girl. Let’s go open your presents.”

With a stack of gifts in front of her, Calliope seems to get over her post-naptime grumpiness in no time. She sits with Christian and I, unwrapping package after package, in front of a crowd of onlookers. Each gift is more extravagant than the last, especially the ones from the higher ups from within Christian’s own company, and with each designer outfit, expensive toy, or exorbitant bond she opens, I notice Kim’s mouth growing tighter and tighter out of the corner of my eye. Calliope though, seems just as interested in the wrapping paper as she does the Dior trench coat Christian helps her open from Ros.

“Here’s one from Grandpa Ray!” Grace says, passing the package I took from my father earlier this afternoon to Christian and Calliope. I look up at him and he winks back at me. Kim reaches down and takes his hand in hers, then pulls in a deep breath like she’s preparing herself for something.

Calliope, an expert now, quickly tears away the paper to reveal a rather beat up copy Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends. I glance down at it, brow furrowed, until Christian and Calliope start flipping through the pages and I see some very familiar markings on the pages.

“Daddy!”

“It’s the same copy you and I used to read every night before bed when you were real little. I thought maybe you and Calliope could carry on the tradition and it would be like…” He shrugs, always uncomfortable with emotion in front of people. “Like, I was there with you.”

“Of course you are.” I get up and throw my arms around him, hugging him as tightly as I can manage. “I love it, Dad. And she will too. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Kiddo.” He kisses me on the cheek, then lets me go so I can sit with Calliope while she goes through the final few presents she has left, but every time I look up at him, his eyes seem to glitter with pride.

“No, no.” Calliope says, looking through the sea of wrapping paper around her and not finding any more gifts to open.

“All done,” Grace sighs.

“What about Christian and Ana’s present?” Kate asks. Christian looks over at me and smiles. I nearly roll my eyes, because I know he’s more excited to give her our gift than she could ever be to receive it, even though we both know it’s what she’ll love more than anything else in the world.

“Is it ready?” I ask.

“It’s down with the zoo waiting for us.”

“Well then, let’s go.” I take Carrick’s hands as he helps me to my feet, then wrap an arm around Mia as the crowd saunters down to the petting zoo. It was probably a mistake keeping her gift down here, because Calliope very quickly shifts out of gift opening mode with all the animals to look at and pet, but Christian manages to draw her away from a tiny little lamb, just long enough to get her attention.

“Ready, Princess?” he asks. She makes an overly excited sound in response and Christian disappears into the tent the people who own the animals set up for supplies. I hold tightly to Callie, feeling my own excitement mounting as I anticipate her reaction, but when Christian comes back through the vinyl flaps at the entrance to the tent, every emotion bubbling up inside of me vanishes and is replaced by shock.

“Ho-see!” Calliope cries with delight, throwing herself forward and reaching out with her arms. I tighten my hold on her and take a step back. Christian is holding onto a rope, leading a pure white pony, whose hair has been braided with baby pink ribbons, towards us.

“I-I…” I stutter, unable to speak as I stare down at the completely unexpected animal. “I thought we agreed on a puppy?”

“Every little girl has a puppy,” Christian says, running the flat of his hand over the pony’s back. “And you know how much she loves those cartoon pony toys she has.”

“Toys,” I breathe, but I have to recover quickly, because Calliope struggles harder and harder to get to the pony with every passing second.

“Ho-see, Mama. Ho-see!”

I glance up at Christian again and mouth the words, ‘we’ll talk about this later’, to him, then carry her forward and let her enjoy the gift that’s a surprise to both of us.

After Calliope has finally had her fill of her own brand new pony, and the rest of the animals in the petting zoo, it’s time for her birthday cake. I must take a dozen pictures of her sitting in front of the small round cake I baked her this morning, and her staring with interest at the solitary flickering candle in the middle while everyone around her sings. Once the song ends, she’s not really sure what to do, so Christian leans down and helps her blow out the candle, then lets her finally dig in hands first. Her beautiful dress is quickly ruined as every inch of her is covered in chocolate cake and frosting, but while the rest of our guests stand around eating the big cake and fawning over how delicious it is, I sit alone with my baby and watch with complete and utter rapture as she enjoys the tasty treat in front of her. With hands completely covered in cake, she curls her fingers into fists and looks over at me, shaking with elation and she hums a loud and clear ‘Mmmm’, and as the happiness of this perfect washes over me, my eyes well with tears.

It’s moments like this that make life worth living.

The party lasts far longer than we intend for it too. After cake, Calliope wants to go back down to the animals where she spends the rest of her party feeding goats and having my dad hold onto her while she rides around a small little enclosure on her pony. Eventually though, our guests trickle out, our family says their goodbyes, and Calliope passes out in her daddy’s arms. When we lay her down in bed, and see the smallest hint of a smile still painted on her lips, even in sleep, I decide that Christian was right earlier. All of this was worth it to see her so happy on her first birthday.

“Am I in trouble?” he asks, after we’ve closed her door and we’re finally alone.

“Far from it,” I breathe back, and lean in to give him a deep, loving kiss. He hums, then pulls back and brushes the wayward strands of hair from my eyes.

“It was a good party. Almost a shame that it’s over.”

“Over?” I repeat. “Oh no, my love. The birthday festivities may have come to a close, but the party is just about to begin.”

He raises an eyebrow at me, so I give him a tantalizing smile, take his hand, and drag him back to our bedroom.

Next Chapter

Chapter 17

img_3932

It’s amazing how well Jacqueline does her job.

The media coverage of the explosion at GEH yesterday has been ubiquitously negative all morning. Words like careless, malpractice, and dangerous have been tossed around every network as casually as they previously reported the morning weather. It has me wracked with worry over the true extent of what could have happened, and what this is all going to mean for Christian and GEH moving forward. But, somewhere around noon, the dialogue being used by the anchors and live reporters on the news about what happened seems to change.

It’s subtle. Incident becomes accident. Dangerous finds its way to tragic. Soon, the pundits are no longer asking “what went wrong?”, they want to know “what can we do to prevent another horrific mishap like this from occurring again?” I doubt anyone even notices the shift, but I can hear Jacqueline’s voice in every word.

By the time I leave the office, Christian’s publicist has appeared on every local station covering the explosion, and called in for interviews on at least two major networks. The messaging coming out of GEH is so flawless, it feels scripted. Aside from Jacqueline, I’ve also heard interviews from Ros and Welch, and not one word of their statements were inconsistent with the company line. The only person who hasn’t made a statement yet is Christian, and the news is so hungry for his press conference this evening, one would think the president was about to address the nation from the Oval Office.

Like I said, it’s amazing how well Jacqueline does her job.

 

After spending the first few minutes of the commute home reading the most recent article brought up by my newly reactivated ‘Christian Grey’ google alert, I drop my phone on the leather seat next to me, close my eyes, and let my head fall back on the headrest. As if the utter exhaustion wasn’t enough to weigh me down, I feel like I’m being torn apart by the completely paradoxical emotions rolling through me.

On one side, I’m just happy Christian got out of that building unscathed. I can’t count the number of prayers I said in those long hours I spent waiting on the sidewalk outside of GEH, bargaining with everything I had to see him walk out just the way he did. So it seems wrong for me to be anything but grateful now that he’s out and safe. But in the absence of the fear that I might never hold him again, I can feel the weight of what truly happened. How many people were put at risk? How many more people could have been hurt? How many more wives, children, or parents watched the smoke filling the streets around the building, wondering just the way I was if they would ever see their loved ones again? And all because Christian ignored the advice of experts and everyone around him, and pursued this project anyway. Is still pursuing it.

But his intentions are good.

Yes, his motivations are driven by unresolved guilt and anger over what happened with Andrew Lincoln, but he’s chosen to direct his need for control and power into something he genuinely believes will benefit humanity. There are risks, dangers that I wasn’t even aware of until yesterday, but history is littered with innovation that could have very well been catastrophic had it not been successful. To throw away progress simply because it’s better to err on the side of caution would mean we would never have airplanes, space shuttles, or electricity. As long as I’ve known him, he’s talked about how green energy was the next big frontier in technological development, and I know what it means to him to be pioneering the way into a cleaner, more ecologically sound future.

But Calliope was in that building.

“Ana?” I open my eyes and look up to meet my CPO’s concerned gaze in the rearview mirror. “There’s a coffee shop coming up here on this next corner, would you like me to stop and get you something?”

“No. Thank you, Evan, but I’m ready to get home..”

“Alright. Just wanna make sure I’m not losing you back there.”

I smile at his reflection, then reach down to pick up my phone again. I don’t know what kind of day Christian has actually had, so I’ve refrained from calling or texting in case he was in the middle of something important. But it’s past five now and his press conference isn’t for a few more hours.

How was your day?

 

Brutal. The only thing that’s gotten me through are thoughts of you.

I stare down at the text as Woods continues to navigate through the heavy evening traffic en route back to our house, and while his sweet words wash over me I can’t help but smile. The blatant sentimentality in his text strikes against the chord in my heart that wants to forget about yesterday and move forward like it never happened. Because the warmth that washes over me in that moment is the first sense of calm and ease I’ve felt all day. After dealing with Scott, Hailey, Alexis, the exhaustion from my sleepless night, and the lingering uneasiness from the cold, threatening voice that no longer seems to be confined to my nightmares, I don’t want to worry over or doubt the one absolute good in my life.

 

Him.

His love.

Us.

 

But Calliope was in that building.

 

God, I’ve never felt so torn in half.

 

I swallow, trying to push away the tightness that grips my chest, and respond to his last text.

Me too. I love you.

 

I love you too, baby. I’ll see you tonight after my press conference is over.

 

Okay, I’ll be waiting. Good luck!

He doesn’t respond, and I spend the rest of the ride home forcing Woods to play all of the old, corny car games my mom taught me when I was young to keep myself awake. When we finally do get back to the house, I’m single minded in getting Calliope back into my arms, and while it doesn’t take me long to find her, I’m surprised when I do. She’s sitting on the kitchen floor with Kensie, dressed only in a diaper, and she’s covered head to toe in chocolate pudding.

“What in the world?” I gasp, grinning. Her face lights up when she sees me, and she reaches out with sticky fingers for me to pick her up.

“Mama! Mama!”

“Hey, baby girl!” With no concern for my cream, chiffon blouse, I lift her off the floor and settle her down on my hip. “What are you doing?”

“Pudding painting,” Kensie answers, also getting to her feet. “She’s been a little antsy today, so I wanted to give her something to do with her hands. Unfortunately, she’s been more interested in painting herself than the paper I gave her.”

“And eating it,” I add, noting the chocolate goatee around her mouth. “Looks like my little artist is going to need a bath before dinner.” I inhale the warm, comforting scent wafting from the oven then glance behind me in search of our strangely absent housekeeper. “Where’s Gail?”

The voice that answers is both unexpected and unwelcome. “Oh, we weren’t doing anything so I thought I’d whip up some comfort food for you and Christian and give her a night off.”

I turn and find my dad’s girlfriend standing in the archway between our kitchen and living room, eyes shining with delight as she stares at the messy baby in my arms.

“Kim, what are you doing here?”

“Well, once we saw what happened to Christian on the news, your daddy wanted to get up here as quickly as possible to check on you. But you weren’t here. Gail told us you went to work so we’ve just been waiting around all day for you to get home.”

“Oh. Where’s my dad?”

She nods behind her. “He’s out back. Little Callie here got a splinter this morning playing on her rocking horse, so he sanded it down and put on a fresh coat of lacquer.”

I look down and notice for the first time that there’s a lilac colored bandage, mostly concealed by chocolate pudding, wrapped around her tiny little index finger. “What’s this, baby girl?”

“Owie,” Calliope replies, a pitifully wounded look crossing her eyes as she holds her finger up for me to see. I kiss it several time in rapid succession, then look at Kim again.

“Well, thank you for… taking care of her.”

She beams. “It was all Raymond. He’s so good with her.”

“Yeah.” I shift Calliope higher onto my hip and pick up a towel off the counter to wipe her hands so she’ll stop sucking the pudding off her fingers. “Your daddy would have a heart attack if he saw you right now. We need to go get you into a bath, munchkin.”

“No!” she cries, her hands moving back to her tummy so she can coat them in chocolate once again and smear the mess over the rest of her body. I laugh and scrunch my nose up against hers, then take her from the kitchen to her bathroom to get washed up and changed. She’s much grumpier after she’s been put into fresh clothes, but her attitude changes once she’s back at the dining room table with the bowl of the white fish, carrot, and leek puree Gail prepared this morning in front of her. Though, after getting to play with pudding all afternoon, she’s no longer interested in eating her dinner from the spoon I offer her. Instead, she dips her fingers into the bowl and shoves her whole hand into her mouth, laughing up at me every time she pulls away clean fingers.

“Mmm,” I hum happily when she begins bouncing in her seat. “Is that yummy?”

“Nummy!”

Kim laughs as she starts placing dishes from the meal she’s prepared on the table in front of me. “She’s a good eater, you have to give her that.”

“She gets it from her daddy,” I reply, not taking my eyes off Calliope. “As long as it’s freshly made and complex, she’ll eat it. Grace tried to give her a jar of Gerber apple puree the last time we were out together, but Calliope turned her bougie little nose up at it.”

“That’s because she’s spoiled.”

My eyes snap up and my back goes stiff straight. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, come on, Annie. She’s adorable but your husband gives her anything and everything she wants. If you’re not careful and start telling her no every once in a while, you’re going to have a little monster on your hands.”

It’s a sentiment that I’ve expressed to Christian over and over again, except that I would never call my daughter a monster. Yet, when Kim makes the same suggestion, my blood begins to boil.

“First of all…” I begin, but I’m cut off by my dad entering the dining room.

“Hey, Annie!” He moves from the door to my side in a motion so swift, it feels like he closes the distance in a single step. His hands smell strongly of varnish as he wraps his arms around me, but there’s something comforting in that. A nostalgic kind of ease that makes my worries over Christian, my irritation with Kim, and the battle I’m fighting at work seem suddenly uncomplicated and unimportant.

“Hi, Daddy.” I breathe in relief.

“You didn’t call me, sweetheart. I’ve been so worried about you.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t call anyone… I was—“

“Preoccupied, I know.” He releases me so I can settle back into my chair next to Calliope, then brushes his hand over the soft hair on top of her head before sitting next to me and graciously accepting the dish Kim offers him. “What happened, Annie?”

“I don’t really know,” I admit. “Christian says it was an accident. Something went wrong with the cooling systems on the prototype they built and then it exploded.”

“Is everyone alright?”

I nod, meekly. “The roof collapsed over the lab and one of his engineers broke his leg under the rubble, but other than that everyone was fine.”

“Good. When I saw the smoke and the broken glass on the news, I thought…” He pauses, his eyes shifting away into open space with a hundred yard stare. I reach over and take his hand, wondering if the images of GEH bring up painful memories from the war, but he doesn’t elaborate any further. With a slight shake of his head, his fingers grip mine and his mouth curls up into a forced kind of smile. “I’m just glad you’re all okay.”

“Where is Christian, anyway?” Kim interjects. “If he’s not home soon, dinner will be cold.”

“He’s still at the office,” I tell her. “He has to make a statement about what happened, so he’s giving a press conference tonight.”

“And you’re not going?”

I swallow. My dad is exactly the person I feel most comfortable talking to about the impossible conundrum I’ve been battling with all day, to help me figure out what I’m really feeling right now, but I’d prefer if we could have this conversation without Kim. I can feel his expectant gaze on me while I push the casserole Kim has made around my plate, and thankfully, he seems to read my reticence perfectly.

“Why don’t you and I go talk alone for a minute, huh?”

“Yeah,” I reply gratefully. He rises from the table and takes my hand, but before he leads me from the dining room, he turns back and kisses the top of Kim’s head in the sweet, loving way Christian always does to me.

“Thank you for a delicious dinner.”

“You hardly ate.”

“Well, don’t touch my plate and I’ll come back for it.” He smiles down at her. Easy. Carefree.

It makes me ache for Christian and reignites my guilt over the trepidation I’ve been feeling instead of simply being grateful that I didn’t have to face the alternative.

I take a reassuring breath as I follow my father through the back door onto the veranda. The sun is low in the sky, turning the water at the edge of my yard different shades of gold and scarlet. A small breath of cool wind makes the grass below the terrace sway lazily back and forth. It’s quiet. Serene even.

“What’s going on, Annie?” my dad prompts me, settling into one of the padded chairs around the glass table where Calliope’s rocking horse is drying. I take the seat next to him and look anywhere but his eyes.

“This project Christian’s working on… it scares me.”

“Well, of course it does. After what happened yesterday, how could it not?”

I gnaw on my bottom lip. “Yeah, but he’s not going to give it up. This project is more to him than just clean energy and fuel free sports cars… It’s his way of making sure what happened last year never happens again. I think I’m only just now starting to realize how much he blames himself for what happened, for not being able to protect me, and that guilt is keeping him from thinking straight. The explosion was an accident, but he was warned that what he wanted to do was impossible. Dangerous even. Ros said that all the experts he’s hired have told him what he wants to do can’t be done, even Elliot’s tried talking to him. But he doesn’t listen. All he cares about is the power this technology will afford him once it works and he can distribute it… but it’s already put him in danger once. What if next time he’s not so lucky? What if this investigation Carrick has to do now causes him to lose everything? The amount of fines he could end paying… I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know what to do.”

My dad sighs and leans forward, taking both my hands in his and waiting until I look at him. “Have you talked to him?”

“No. I don’t know what to say to him. Part of me feels like this is my fault. If I hadn’t fallen apart like I did, he wouldn’t feel the need to—“

“Hey, don’t do that. What you went through, most people can’t even fathom. Whichever way you needed to process that is okay. You’re allowed to feel however you feel, and so is Christian. It sounds to me like you two just need to get on the same page and that’s not going to happen if you don’t tell him exactly what you just told me.”

“I don’t want him to think I don’t believe in him. I think that’s why he and his dad fight so much. Carrick is a realist. Christian’s a dreamer. Whenever they clash over something like this, they fall apart and…” A brief image of Elena’s superior smirk flashes through my mind’s eye, and my head falls. “He needs someone on his side and I want to be that person. Always.”

“But you’re not on his side. Not if you’re not being honest with him about how you feel.”

“I don’t think it’s that easy.”

His chest heaves as he takes a deep breath and leans back in his chair again. “Maybe it’s not, by yourself anyway. Maybe therapy could help you—“

“Dad…”

“Annie, just listen to me for a minute, okay? I know you’re trying to be okay, but you’re not. You can tell us that you are until you’re blue in the face, but we all see it. You’re right. Christian blames himself for what happened and no matter what I’ve said, no matter what Carrick or Elliot or even your therapist says, nothing is going to change that. Not as long as he thinks you’re still barely holding on by a thread. If you want to help him, you’ve gotta help yourself, baby girl.”

“I have been. I’ve moved on, Dad. I’m just fine.”

“Ana.” The way he stares at me, imploring me with his eyes, seems to drill a hole right through my chest, and the edges of the void crumble away, expanding, until it feels like it’s going to swallow me in darkness. And from the shadows, I can hear the echo of Lincoln’s cold, vile threats. I can feel him standing over me. Watching me. Waiting for me.

“This isn’t about me,” I say, jumping too quickly to my feet. “I don’t need to talk, I need to forget.” I turn from the table and storm into the house, my hands shaking as I yearn desperately to get Calliope in my hands so that I can lock her away. But after pulling her from her highchair, ignoring Kim’s questions, and moving purposefully towards the stairs, I hear Kensie call for me from the living room.

“Ana? The mayor is about to come on TV.”

I stop and look through the open archway where she and Woods are already sitting on the couch, watching the news. Instantly, the vaguely threatening fog clouding my mind clears and the instinctual need to hide vanishes. I lean down and kiss Calliope’s cheeks, then take her into the living room with me, where I sit on the couch next to our nanny and focus on the headline dragging across the bottom of the screen.

 

Christian Grey to address Grey Enterprises Holdings Explosion

 

“Hi, Mama,” Calliope says, forcing her fingers into my mouth as I listen intently to every word being said on the television.

“Hi, baby,” I mumble back distractedly. My voice is pleasant, happy, but my eyes stay glued to the screen. My dad takes the seat on the sofa next to me then, Kim settling down on his other side. He tries to take the baby from me, but she screams, ‘no’. Her arms and legs wrap around me, so I rock her back and forth as Kensie turns up the volume on the TV.

The newscaster for KIRO 7 looks serious as she reiterates the events that happened the day before, but I note again how carefully she’s avoiding words like ‘wrongdoing’, or ‘at fault’. There’s a cut away, followed by an interview with Carrick that feels oddly antagonistic. Any discussion of the investigation being launched by the city of Seattle almost comes across as a violation. Unnecessary government meddling. There’s even a point where the interviewer asks a question in a way that subtly suggests that Carrick is being unnecessarily critical over the accident because of his relation to Christian.

“It’s no secret, Mr. Mayor, that you’ve clashed with Mr. Grey previously this year on corporate tax rates, which has stalled the approval of this year’s budget, and many pro-business city councilmen have sided with your son. Some have claimed that this investigation is merely a bargaining tool being used by the Mayor’s office to push your own agenda regarding tax reform.”

Carrick struggles not to roll his eyes. “We’re all pro-business, Meredith, let me assure you. And while my plan for comprehensive tax reform is beneficial to every Seattle resident, not just the wealthiest one percent, that particular issue has no bearing on this investigation. The city’s goal is to ensure that Grey Enterprises Holdings did not disregard safety protocols and procedures, whether intentionally or through negligence, and put the well being of the public at risk.”

“Well, hopefully we’ll get some additional insight into what those safety procedures were during tonight’s press conference. Thank you, Mr. Mayor.”

“My pleasure, Meredith.” The split screen merges back into one and the faintly hostile expression being worn by the anchorwoman vanishes immediately. Another subtle sign of Jacqueline’s due diligence.

I take a deep breath as the feed changes to the lobby of Christian’s building, where dozens of reporters sit before an empty podium. The video has been set up in a way that the damage from the explosion can’t be seen by the viewer. The shattered glass has been cleared, the floors have been polished. The only thing in view of the camera is the wall composed entirely of high definition screens, which display branding for Grey Enterprises Holdings with perfect clarity, even through the camera. The logo flashes three or four times, then the elevator just visible on the right side of the screen opens and Christian approaches the podium. A hush falls over the crowd of reporters and everyone one of us lean in closer to the TV.

“Good evening,” he begins, subtly adjusting his tie as he lays the cards with his speech written on them down on the podium. It’s the only sign of nerves in his otherwise perfectly composed disposition.

“Dada?” Calliope says, turning to the TV the moment she recognizes his voice.

I frown. “Kensie, will you take her upstairs and try to put her down? She shouldn’t watch this.”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.” She takes Calliope from my lap, then disappears into the entrance hall. I tuck my legs beneath me on the sofa and my dad’s hand moves down to hold my foot in a gesture of support.

“Yesterday at approximately 12:45 PM,” Christian continues, “there was an explosion in the Grey Enterprises Holdings Research and Development laboratory. As of this morning, I have allocated all available company resources into the internal investigation being carried out by my own team and have instructed everyone involved in the accident to comply with and assist all state and local authorities with their external investigation. Though, undoubtedly, there will be redundancies. In the meantime, all research and practical applications of this project have been relocated to a safe, remote testing site located outside of the city. Miss Bailey and I have reached out to the families of the four people wounded in the accident and offered our sincere commiserations over what happened and made clear to them that GEH stands with them in every possible way as they receive care for their injuries. I would like to take this time to acknowledge and thank Seattle’s police and fire departments, who responded to yesterday’s tragic accident both quickly and heroically.”

There is a split second of agreement, followed immediately by the clicks and flashes of cameras and shouts of questions. Christian ignores all of it and moves onto the next card. Why he bothers with the cards at all, I’m not sure. His delivery is flawless, as if he’s reciting the speech from memory.

“It’s unfortunate that this project has been brought to the attention of the public before it’s completion, only because even my team cannot yet be certain of its full potential or the vast array of benefits this technology will afford this city, and the people of the world. The mission of Grey Enterprises Holdings is to constantly push the boundaries of innovation and invention so that we may build a more sustainable future. It is with that goal in mind that this energy project came to be. In conjunction with the world’s foremost experts in nuclear physics and engineering, GEH has charged forward into the uncharted frontier of clean, limitless energy. Too long have the goals of our greatest energy creators been to change the way we use energy, to burn fossil fuels and coal more cleanly or to simply reduce their consumption. But it is that kind of limited thinking that has failed us all. We’re being led to believe that the same technology available to us in the early 20th century is adequate for our needs today. I reject that. I reject that for all that modern technology has done to advance every aspect of our day to day lives, we create energy in much the same way we did a century ago.”

The room grows dark, and the high definition screens behind Christian go black. Then, there’s a cut in the feed from the press conference to a pre-recorded video that’s starts with dramatic music and the stark, compelling images of the consequences of wasteful energy. Pollution, waste, global warming… the clip paints a bleak portrait of the future until it introduces Christian’s fusion project as the answer to all of the world’s problems.

Grandiose promises are made. Everything from saving the environment to ending wars in the Middle East. It would feel over the top, if it weren’t so masterfully done, and the part that cuts to Ros and Christian talking about how nothing throughout history that was worthwhile was achieved without setbacks or adversity would be cheesy if he didn’t look so confident and handsome on the screen. He makes promises for thousands of good paying jobs for the people of Seattle. He paints a picture of the future that every parent would want for their child, that he specifically says he wants for his daughter. By the time the video ends, even I am left with such a feeling of hope that one would think he’d just introduced the key to humanity’s survival.

At first, the press don’t know how to react. No questions were answered about what really happened, and he didn’t even address the investigation being done by the city. His entire speech and the video they presented to a live television audience was just one big sales pitch. But if Christian’s nervous that his presentation didn’t make the impact he hoped it would, his face doesn’t portray it. He stands there looking composed and sure, until the spell of the vision he just laid out to the world is broken and the reporters launch their first questions at him from the crowd.

It’s brutal. For nearly twenty minutes he’s bombarded on live TV with inquires about what happened and what safety protocols were in place at the time of the explosion. Most of his answers are vague, capitalizing on an incomplete investigation to avoid saying anything incriminating. But just like it did this morning, the tone of the press conference quickly begins to shift. Christian continues repeating the economic benefits of this project, the job creation possibilities, and the environmental benefits, and eventually the press buys in. I sit on my phone until well after the Q&A has ended, reading the first reactions being posted online and nearly every one of them puts Christian in a positive light. The official GEH PixC account releases a photo from the press conference with a few choice excerpts of Christian’s speech, and the comment section is full of support for his project. There’s even an entire thread of discussion in the online feed for KIRO 7 News about how the city’s investigation against GEH is killing jobs.

“It sounds to me like you’ve got nothing to worry about, kiddo,” my dad says. “He’s put a lot more into this than I thought.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “Yeah, he did great.”

 

It’s late, too late for he and Kim to make the drive back to Montesano, so I help them get settled in one of the guest rooms. Once I’ve made sure they have everything they need, I check to make sure Calliope is sleeping soundly and head back downstairs to watch as much of the post press conference news coverage as I can. By the time I hear the garage open, signaling Christian has finally arrived home, it’s clear that he’s done exactly what he aimed to. So long as he plays his cards right, he and GEH should come out of this unscathed. And I’m glad to find the relief outweighs the sense of foreboding I still feel over the future of this project.

“You’re still awake,” Christian says, surprised when he enters the kitchen and finds me still perched on the sofa. He sets his things down on the counter, but hovers in the archway. “I thought you’d be in bed by now.”

“I told you I’d wait up.”

“But, you didn’t sleep last night. I would have forgiven you for going back on your promise.”

“That’s generous, but our bed holds no interest for me without you in it.”

The tired, serious look on his face breaks at my words, like the sun finally shining through a thick blanket of storm clouds, and he immediately moves into the living room to give me a tender kiss.

“I’m glad you’re awake,” he says. “I’ve been yearning for these lips all day.”

“Mmm,” I hum in response. “Then I’m glad I stayed up.”

He smiles again and turns back for the kitchen. “I’m going to have bourbon. Can I get you anything? More wine? Or would you rather have Tequila?”

“Depends on how tired you are,” I reply, coyly. His expression is alight with good humor, which makes me believe his drink is a celebration over his successful press conference, rather than a consolation prize after an overly difficult day. I watch every move he makes as he pours our drinks, realizing again as I take in his lithe, strong body how grateful I am that yesterday’s events are behind us and he’s safe at home. He saunters towards me with two tumblers dangling from the fingers of one hand, and his phone in the other. As he hands me the glass of silvery alcohol, music begins playing softly from across the room.

“I saw your father’s car outside,” he says, settling down on the couch next to me.

“He and Kim came to check on you. They saw the news coverage and were worried.”

“Then I’m sorry I was late.”

“That’s okay.” I pause to take a drink of my tequila, summoning the courage to talk to him about the parts of all of this that have had my stomach tied in knots all day, but before I can fully pull my drink away, his hand slides over my cheek and he pulls my lips to his again.

“Mmm,” he hums in content. “Tell me about your day.”

“Oh, it was fine.”

“Just fine?”

I sigh, then drain the rest of my glass, set it on the table next to the armrest, and crawl into his lap. “I lost Phoenix today.”

His brow furrows. “What happened?”

“Scott. He went to Carmen while I was out yesterday and told her we were moving forward with The Black Rose. I had to meet with the author today and let her know I’m not going to be able to get her published after all.”

“Did she take it poorly?”

“No. I kind of… subtly pushed her towards Lydia, so she’ll get published somewhere. I’m just upset that I’m not going to get the chance to work on the project myself. Especially when I’m now stuck with something that is going to take an actual miracle to salvage.”

“What’s her name again?”

“Who?”

“Your author.”

“Oh, Hailey Lewis.”

“I could pass her manuscript off to Elizabeth, if you want. Sign her to GP. It’ll mean she’s close and I can keep you updated on where she’s at in the publishing process.”

I narrow my eyes. “That might work on reporters, but not on me. I’m not about to pass off a book I know will be a best seller to my biggest local competitor. Nice try.”

He grins. “I had to give it a shot.”

“Uh huh.” Still smiling, he leans into me and kisses me again. But he doesn’t pull away this time. His lips linger against mine, pushing deeper until eventually his tongue slides purposefully into my mouth. I moan in contentment and wrap my arms around him. Blindly, he reaches behind his back and places the tumbler on his own side table, and with free hands he shifts me so that I’m pinned beneath him on the cushions. The weight of him seems to fill the emptiness I’ve held in my chest all evening, and it’s only too easy to forget all the things we still need to talk about with his warm, masculine scent swirling through my senses.

“Wait,” I gasp, but when I break the kiss, his lips simply move down to my throat.

“What?” he asks against my skin.

“We need to talk.”

“Later.” His hands move up and begin to knead my breast over my shirt. His fingers find my nipples through the fabric and with a sharp, biting pinch, I’m nearly lost again. His tongue is hot and smooth on my skin, his erection digs into my hip like he’s turned to stone. Every primal urge threatens to overcome me, but I resist. My fingers curl into the roots of his hair and I pull him back so that his mouth can no longer distract me.

“Now.”

He groans, but sits up so that I can squirm out from beneath him. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I—“ The words stick in my throat, and I have to swallow three times to coax them out. “I can’t go through another day like yesterday again, Christian.”

His shoulders fall and he sighs. “I know. And you won’t have to, I promise. We’ve found a new testing facility in Kent. Everything is being moved there tomorrow.”

“So? I’ll have to drive farther the next time you’re buried underground?”

“Anastasia…”

“You’ll be there too, Christian. Wherever they test the next prototype, you’ll go there, and if there’s another accident, another explosion… you might not be so lucky next time.”

“There won’t be another accident,” he says confidently. “Where everyone else sees disaster in what happened, we see progress. We’ve learned. It was a coding error that made the cooling systems fail and that’s easy to fix. The next one will be perfect.”

“You wouldn’t have tested the last one if you didn’t think it was perfect.”

“Mistakes happen, Ana.”

“And I don’t want you making ones that could cost you your life. You’re a father now, Christian. Think about Calliope and what would it would have been like for her if you never came out of that lab. She can’t lose you, and neither can I.”

“You won’t.”

“She was in the building!”

“You don’t think I thought about that every second I was down there?” There’s a flare of anger in his voice now. “You don’t think I worried constantly that the explosion was bigger than it was? That enough of the building had been damaged that she wouldn’t be able to get out, or worse. I know the risks, Anastasia, and it gives me no pleasure to take them, but this is what has to be done!”

“It doesn’t though! You can stop. You can scrap the project with the snap of your fingers.”

“After that press conference?”

My mouth drops open to argue, but no words come out. He’s right, if he doesn’t fulfill the promises he made to the public tonight, GEH’s credibility will be ruined forever. The thought is like a needle piercing the wall of a balloon filled with all the fight I was able to bring to this argument, and as it loses air, so do I.

“Hey,” he says, placing a finger under my chin and tilting my face back up to his. “It’s not going to happen again.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I know better now. Because my team knows better. I won’t let it get to that point again and I’ll make sure the fail safes are in place and functioning before anymore testing is done.”

“You promise?”

“Promise.”

“And if anything makes you, or the people working with you think this is going somewhere unsafe, you’ll stop?”

“Yes.”

“No matter how close you get? Even if you think you’re on the verge of a break through?”

He sighs. “If it gets dangerous, I’ll pull the plug and move on.”

“Swear to me.”  

“On my love.” He takes my hand and places it over his heart. I glance down at it, feeling the heat of his hand and the steady thump inside his chest, then look up, past the gray of his eyes, searching for any hint of a lie or a bluff and finding nothing. I try to take comfort in that, but I also know that Christian has a perfect poker face.

 

Trust, Ana. He’s your husband and he loves you. He’s put everything on the line for you before. This is where you have to TRUST that he will stop when this is too much for you to bear.

 

With a slow, even breath, I lean forward and gently press my lips against his once more. We hardly touch. My kiss is a mere whisper of my love against his mouth, coaxing him, taunting him, and he takes it for exactly what it is. An invitation.

His arms twist around me and once again he lays me out on the sofa, covering my body with his. Through our clothes, I can feel his desirous heat melting over me like wax dripping from a candle. He lets out a need laden groan each time our lips part for even the smallest fraction of a second. His strong hands curl into my clothes with a barely contained violence, as if it’s taking every ounce of his already restrained self-discipline not to shred the fabric and let it fall in tatters to the floor.

This is how I want him. Right now, I need his dominance. Because, just like it did when he finally coaxed me out of bed last September, it means the power is truly mine. It’s a test of my trust, and his restraint. It’s a test of how far he’s really willing to go. One word to stop him. One word, and everything ends.

My teeth sink harshly into his bottom lip and he lets out a sharp, “ah!” before he pulls away. The disapproval of my small act of rebellion is clear in the eyes of molten steel that look down on me. I give him a playful, defiant smile.

“Uh oh. Now what are you going to do about that?”

He face twists with desire, and his words come out low and throaty. “You want to play?”

“Only if you consider dominating me a game.” He growls, sweeps me up off the couch, and slings me over his shoulder like a sack of flour. As he climbs the stairs, his strong hands grip the back of my thighs, digging into my flesh with unfettered want as though he’s exercising a great deal of restraint to keep them from moving up my legs to what he really wants. The hallway to our bedroom is dark, but I can feel the lines of his hard body through the thin, but sturdy cotton of his shirt. My anticipation mounts with each step, and by the time he tosses me onto our bed, my whole body hums with desire.

“Hands over your head,” he commands. Immediately, I reach up, pushing the tops of my forearms into the comforter. He pulls my shirt over my head, then makes quick work of the clasp and straps on my bra. The cool air wafting through the open balcony doors has my nipples hard and tight, and while he pulls my skirt and panties down my legs, his mouth ravishes both of them.

“Don’t move,” he tells me once I’m completely naked.

“Yes, Sir.”

After one last appraisal of my body in the moonlight, he turns to the dresser, pulls a black velvet box from the top drawer, and removes a single, silver key. I watch it glint in the pale iridescent light as I follow each and every one of his silent steps across to the carpet to the locked closet door on the other side of the room. It has its own light, and once he’s opened the door and stepped into the roomy space, the beam stretches over to the bed and floods over me. Each curve in my breasts, my shoulders, my hips, or my knees creates shadows opposite the glow that kisses my skin, and the contrast makes me feel sexy and desirable. I want to squirm. I want to call him back. I want to reach between my legs and ease the ache his touch has left me with. But I don’t. I lie perfectly still, because that’s how he said he wanted me.

“What is your safe word?” he asks, moving back to the bed with a complicated restraint mechanism that ends in two leather cuffs meant to secure each of my wrists.

“Red,” I reply, mouth dry. He nods and climbs on the bed, right over the top of me. His knees press against my sides as he buckles me in and his erection, still concealed inside his trousers, strains tightly against the fabric down his right thigh. I can’t help myself. I lean up, mouth open, and drag my lips over the bulge, letting my hot breath wash over him and seep through the material. The leather strap on the last cuff jerks violently as he hastily tightens it, then his hand finds its way under my jaw and he pulls my face up, forcing me to look at him.

“Don’t be greedy, Anastasia.”

I bite my lip at the chastisement, which makes him moan before he claims my mouth again. His kiss is different now. Demanding, fervent, and controlled. I can feel myself getting wetter and wetter with each brush of his tongue against mine and every nip of his teeth at my lips. My need for him blooms wildly from my core and through my veins until I’m whimpering for his touch.

“Please,” I whisper, because whispering is all I can manage.

“Please, what?”

“Master.”

The satisfied, sandpaper sound he makes after hearing that word is immediately followed by the jingle of his belt and the low sound of his zipper. “This is going to be hard and quick, baby,” he warns me. “Do not come until I tell you to.”

“Yes, Sir.” His hand comes down hard on my thigh, the slap sounding more violent than the sting in my skin really feels. I shutter and clench, then open my legs for him. He kneels between my thighs, back straight and proud, eyes smoldering, his cock gripped tightly in his fist as he stares and the apex of my thighs.

“So god damn beautiful,” he whispers in awe, then he pushes the crown of his erection against my entrance and takes me in one, hard thrust.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream, my back arching high off the bed as pure, uninhibited pleasure roils through me. He pulls back and slams into me, again and again, hard and quick, setting the rhythm for each pulse of the orgasm he’s determined to give me. I cry out his name, scream, and moan without any regard to the other people in the house, though I know deep down no one can actually hear us. And each gasp and feral sound of want he draws out of me only seems to make him more and more determined. His hands grip me with enough force to leave behind dime sized bruises. My scalp burns from where his fingers have wrapped too tightly around my hair. My lips are swollen from his mouth and my nipples throb from his teeth. But all of that is the perfect foil to the fiery pleasure mounting higher and higher with every passing second.

“Christian!” I scream. “Oh, please…”

“Please what, Anastasia?”

“I need to come.”

“Do you?” He pulls my leg up over his shoulder, wraps his fingers around my throat for leverage, and pistons deeper into me, testing my limits. I feel tight and swollen around him, my lips and walls quivering with the effort it takes for me not to explode, and the pleasure he draws from it is obvious on his face. “God, you feel fucking incredible.”

“Please!”

“You want to come, baby?”

“Yes! Yes! God, yes!”

“Who owns your orgasms?”

“You. Take me, Christian. Use me. I’m yours.”

He growls and leans over, his now naked chest pressing into mine and his lips brushing right up against my ear. “Scream my name when you come, and make me believe you really fucking mean it.”

He doesn’t have to wait long. He shifts so that the angle with which he moves against me both hits that perfect spot inside of me and rubs my clit against his skin. Two more thrusts, and I dissolve into oblivion.

“Christian! Oh, fuck! CHRISTIAN!”

It’s mind shattering. My orgasm wraps around me like a python, tighter and tighter with every pulse, winding me up, making my toes curl, and then everything releases all at once in a fantastic supernova. I pant desperately, incoherent versions of his name continually bubbling from my lips. My body shakes and convulses so violently he has to hold my hips down as he fucks me through the quivering pleasure. It lasts forever, and he never relents. By the time I finally come down, my skin is slick with sweat and every part of me feels like it’s been turned to jello.

“Beautiful,” he whispers, looking at me now as though something cosmic has shifted and now the world is perfect. He changes rhythm, his thrusts more erratic and sloppy the closer he gets to his own release. I can see his jaw tighten as he chases his orgasm, see the gray in his eyes darken, the muscles in his arms start to shake. He’s there. Right there. Any second…

“Red!”

Everything stops in an instant. One second, I’m full of him, the next second I’m left without. All traces of his weight on my body vanish.

Shit.

“Baby,” he says, his eyes moving wildly to each of mine as he quickly reaches up and untangles the restraints around my hands. Gone is every ounce of the unruly passion that had burned behind his eyes, leaving only concern in its absence. “What happened? Did I hurt you?”

“No,” I reply, voice shaking. “I just… I-I–”

“Hey.” He nestles up against my side, but his arms don’t wind around me like I expect. He doesn’t nuzzle me, even though his face is pressed against my hair. He’s as still as a statue, waiting for me to give him permission to do more. My breathing comes in harsh, wild pants, different from how they were when he made me come.

“I-I’m sorry,” I whisper, and he sits up.

“Don’t ever apologize for using your safeword, Anastasia. I never want you to be ashamed of that word. It’s yours to use however and whenever you want to.”

“I know. But you were…” I take a breath, realizing I’m about to start apologizing again. “I know.”

“What happened?”

“I just… I needed my hands back.”

“Was it too tight?”

“Yeah. I-I guess. I don’t know. Normally, I like it tight…”

“But not tonight.” he exhales and shakes his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you like that after the day you’ve had.” I nod, and he settles back down into the bed behind me again. “Are you ready for me to hold you?”

“Always.” I can’t help it, I want to apologize again, but instead I say, “I love you, Christian.”

“I love you too, Anastasia.”  

His arms snake around me, and he pulls my whole body flush against his until it feels like we’ve melded together. Eventually, my heart rate slows, my breathing evens out, and my eyelids start to droop. A welcome sense of calm crosses over me, seeping into each and every one of my pores and relaxing away all of the stress and anxiety of the past two days.

Because he stopped.

No matter how close he was, he stopped when I asked him to.

One word, and it was over.

 

That night, my dreams are free of smoke and fire and the cold voice of Andrew Lincoln.

 

Chapter 16

oysters_100count_768x650_ad5118ca-dfb6-4772-a91f-fe160775387c_2048x

September 2011

“Christian, I think it’s time we start considering that Ana might need REAL help. This isn’t healthy,” Carrick says.

“Don’t you think I’ve tried? I’ve flown in doctors from around the world, I’ve shielded her from the news and every mention of what happened. Hell, I’ve asked her to just… go see Flynn every single day since we left Escala, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s not ready.” There’s a soft thud as, I imagine, Christian lets his head fall against the closed door between us. He should be at work now. I’ve heard through the bits of phone conversations he’s had with Ros and Welch as he paced the floor, thinking I was asleep, that GEH is launching a new, top secret energy project that he expects will take up most of his time until it’s complete. But he can’t go to work. He can’t leave the house. Because he won’t leave me.

I curl my fingers around the blankets that cover his childhood bed and pull them up over the top of my head, trying to block out their voices.

“She’s not eating, Son,” Carrick continues. “She’s not sleeping. She’s not taking care of herself…”

“She showered on her own this morning. That’s progress.”

“It’s been six weeks, a shower shouldn’t be a celebration. I think it’s time we thought about sending her to some kind of treatment facility. Somewhere beautiful and relaxing where she can get some separation. Find peace. They’re better equipped to deal with this kind of depression.”

“She’s not depressed. She’s terrified. And, sending her away from Calliope would only make her worse.”

“Christian…”

“She just needs more time, Dad. And if that’s what she needs, that’s what she’s going to get. I can take care of her until she’s ready.”

Carrick sighs. “Alright, I’m sorry I brought it up. Your mother is preparing a bottle downstairs. If you’ll get Calliope for me, I’ll take her down.”

I can hear the metallic grind of the knob as it turns, but Christian opens the door the rest of the way and moves across the bedroom in complete silence. The bassinet Calliope has been sleeping in since we moved in with Grace and Carrick is in the corner closest to the bed I’m lying in, and through sound and some other sense that seems to have been heightened in the aftermath of our ordeal with Andrew Lincoln, I know he’s lifting the baby into his arms and carrying her out of the room. Her small, sweet coos disappear with the click of the door closing and it takes everything in me not to call out for her, refuse to let them take her from my side.

My eyes screw tightly closed. ‘Grace is feeding her. She needs to eat. Grace is safe. This house is safe. We are safe.’

I repeat those words in my head over and over again, willing myself to believe them.

“I know you’re not sleeping,” Christian says, making me jump because I thought the room was empty. I take a deep breath to try and calm my system again, to stop the shaking, and pull the blanket off my head so that I can blink up at his worried face.

“How?” My voice is hoarse.

“You’re not screaming.” He takes a deep breath and sits on the bed beside me. His fingers move up into my hair, rubbing gently against my scalp. It feels nice, but I still involuntarily flinch under his touch, just as I have every time he’s touched me in the last six weeks. I know that it hurts him to see me recoil from his hands and I wish I could stop, but I can’t.

‘This house is safe. We are safe.’

“Ana. Baby…”

“Please don’t send me away,” I croak. “I’m trying. I’m really trying.”

“I know. You’re not going anywhere.”

I nod and then curl my bottom lip under my teeth, trying to hide the tremble from him. There’s heat from impending tears blooming in my eyes. “How long am I going to feel like this, Christian?”

“Baby–”

“I can’t stop seeing it. Every time I close my eyes, I see him. I feel him on top of me. No matter how much time passes, I can’t get out.”

“You are out, Ana. You’re right here, with me. Only me.” His voice is thick now too, and when I glance up to look at him again, I can see the pain etched in every crease in his forehead and around his eyes. As difficult as it is for me to simply press on day after day, I can’t imagine how devastating it is for him to see me this way. To watch me unravel over and over again. To be completely and utterly shattered. To know that every time he tries to pick me up and put me back together, I slip through his fingers and break all over again.

I feel weak, and I hate it. I hate what Lincoln has done to me. I hate that, even in death, he holds power over me. Christian, Carrick, Elliot, Kate, and my dad can all tell me that it’s over, that we’ve won and everything is safe now. But this isn’t victory. This, what I’m living right now, is the very definition of defeat.

“I promise you, Anastasia. I’m never going to let anyone hurt you ever again. No matter what it takes, no matter what I have to do, I’m going to keep you safe. I’m going to keep Calliope safe. No one will come for us ever again.”

“How do you do that?” I whisper. “How do you sound so sure?”

“Because I have to. I can’t fail at this again. I won’t.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Christian. You didn’t fail us. He was…”

“Insane, I know. But the holes in my defenses that he exposed will never be left open again. We’re wiser now. Stronger. I am in control, and no one is going to take that from me again. You’re safe, Ana. Please, let me try to help you.”

The pleading hope that looks down on me is nearly enough to break me in two.

“I love you, Christian,” I tell him, my voice cracking. I reach up and place a hand on his cheek. His eyes close as he leans into my touch and the look of relief that flashes briefly across his face makes my heart beat the first solid thump I’ve felt in weeks. But the warm, wholeness I feel pressing my fingers into his scruff fades as quickly as it came, changing instead into something cold and sharp. My hand recoils and I may as well have slapped him for the look of pain that instantly replaces his moment of serenity. “I just… can’t. Not yet. And I’m sorry. I wish I had your strength. I wish I felt any ounce of the control you do, but I don’t.”

He takes a deep breath through his nose and looks down at me for a long time, like he’s trying to solve a puzzle, but is continually coming up short. “What if…? I mean, maybe you can.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know how you’re feeling, Ana. I know that it feels like no one could ever understand, but I do. I spent a long time feeling like everything around me was out of my control. Like life was happening to you and you were helpless to stop it. I can… I can help you change that. I can help you take back control.” I can’t help but notice the caution in his voice, like he’s not sure he should really do what he’s suggesting. But the lure of his promise is too much to resist.

“Show me.”

He takes another deep breath in preparation and then nods. Slowly, his hands peel the comforter away from my body and the cold air of the room brings goosebumps to the surface of my skin. I want to pull them back. There’s a kind of vulnerability that comes from being exposed that I want to fight against on an instinctual level, but I force myself to bear it. The promise of respite from this constant fear is too strong.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he says, gruffly now. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know.”

His fingers release the blankets still clutched in his hand, and he moves his palms over my legs. My muscles tense, and every sinew of my body aches to pull away, but I don’t. I stare down at his hands, determined, and watch them trace the curves of my body.

“These are my hands,” Christian says. “Not his. Not anyone else’s. You belong to me, Anastasia, and these are the only hands that will ever touch you again.”

I nod and continue to watch the drag of his fingers over my skin. For months, the parts of me that Andrew Lincoln had groped and molested seem to burn with the imprint of his touch. But when Christian’s hands sweep over them, tender and full of his love, that burn is extinguished for the first time. I feel like he’s swiping an analgesic over my limbs, numbing the guilt and the pain. When he touches me the memory of all other touch dissipates, and the relief is like being able to breathe freely for the first time in months.

“You are mine, Ana,” he repeats.

“Yours,” I whisper back.

“You are safe.”

“Safe.”

His hands move up my body, over my hip, my side, my breast, until his hands cradle either side of my face. Again, he pauses to look deep into my eyes and like a bear awakening from a long winter hibernation, I feel the first stirrings of heat between my legs.

“Christian.”

His hands tighten around the roots of my hair, making me gasp, and then he leans down to kiss me. A real kiss, not the hesitant press of lips I’ve come to know over the past few weeks that always breaks away in rejection and hurt. His mouth is demanding against mine, taking from me what he wants but maintaining an expression of love that cannot be denied. A part of me realizes that his power should frighten me. In the aftermath of everything I’ve experienced, I should cower under his insistent, commanding touch. I should fear the pain and humiliation that is sure to follow, that I felt when Andrew Lincoln touched me. But Christian’s dominance doesn’t frighten me. His certainty, his strength, and his love reassure me in a way that’s different than it’s felt in the past. Somehow, his sovereignty in this moment is also mine. It’s not something I can explain, even to myself, it’s something I can only feel.

“Tell me your safeword,” he growls against my mouth.

“Red,” I pant back.

“Say that word, and I’ll stop. Whether it’s pain or pleasure, all you have to do is use that word, and everything will end. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.” And it’s in that moment that I truly do. Because I think of Christian as the strongest man in the world. The most powerful. The most influential. And for all that he controls, I’m the one who can stop him. Only me.

That’s power. True power. And it’s mine.

“Yes, what?” he asks, voice low and dark.

“Yes, Sir.” And with that, I’m flipped around and his hand comes down hard on my behind, the pain searing all memory of foreign touch from my body. When Christian climbs onto the bed behind me, kneeling between my legs and working quickly to get his belt open, I’m a clean slate. I’m brand new again. Stronger. More Sure. Put back together again by his strength and the power he lets me wield through the guise of submission.

 

“Mrs. Grey?”

I start and blink away the memory, before turning to look at my CPO standing in the doorway to my office. Even through my exhausted state, I can see the hesitance in his eyes. Like he’s unsure whether or not to bother me. I’d attempted to go back to bed once Christian left for work this morning and I’d made sure Calliope was fed and taken care of, but the moment my eyes closed, the nightmares returned, filled with fire and smoke and the whisper of Andrew Lincoln. So, I dragged my tired body into the shower, dressed, and came into work, intent on occupying my mind with chapter submissions and whatever I’m going to say to Scott about Phoenix. Unfortunately, my capacity for critical thinking after my long, sleepless night isn’t as keen as my will. The speech I’ve prepared to convince him feels empty of the conviction that I feel so potently, I’m willing to put my career on the line for it.

“Yes, Woods?” I yawn.

He closes the door and steps into my office, settling down into the chair on the other side of my desk and leaning towards me. “Is there something I can get for you, Ana? Coffee? Food, maybe?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you.” I offer him a weak smile that doesn’t fool him for a second, then sigh. “Did you speak to Andrea?”

“Yeah, he’s been in a meeting with his lawyers and PR team all morning.”

I fight not to roll my eyes. “Yeah, I had about seven different text messages from Jacqueline when I got out of the shower asking me to post a picture of Calliope on PixC to distract from all the media coverage about GEH right now.”

“Which you ignored?”

“Obviously. But I’ve got lots of pictures of Christian and I from my last year at Harvard that I thought would be just as distracting. I’m about six months pregnant in the one I posted, so maybe someone won’t realize it’s old and a new rumor will be started and all this other stuff will be swept under the rug.”

“Do you want it to be?” Woods stares at me, but not as though he’s expecting an answer. His tone and the careful look of empathy behind his eyes tells me he already knows what I want to say. I swallow my doubts and turn away from him. “Look, Ana. Taylor told me when I was assigned to your service that Mr. Grey had been clear about not wanting another CPO to get close to you. That’s why I’ve tried to keep you at arm’s length and stay professional. But… I’m here if you want to talk. I was there yesterday. I saw it. I know how hard that must have been for you.”

I look down at my hands in my lap, blinking away the hot moisture pooling over my lower lids. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” he concedes. “But I’m here if you do.”

“Thanks… Evan.”

“My pleasure, Ana.” He gets out of his chair and grins at me, trying to be reassuring, I think. It’s a different side of him, something I haven’t seen before. I never thought I’d find another CPO like Luke Sawyer, but there’s something genuine his concern, in the almost avuncular gleam in his eyes, that soothes the sense of unease inside of me just a fraction. I smile as he turns to go, but before he exits my office completely, he stops and faces me again.

“He’s doing a press conference this evening.”

“What? Why?” Woods raises an eyebrow, an indication that I should already know. And, after a few seconds thought, I do. By addressing the media himself, he can try to re-shape the narrative. He can express his regret over what happened and reassure the public of all the steps they’re taking to make sure none of this happens again. Offense as the best defense.

“Should I go?” I ask, but Woods just shrugs.

“If you want. But if you don’t, it’s going to be televised.”

Of course it is.

My phone beeps on my desk, interrupting my internal argument over supporting my husband publicly and disagreeing with him privately, and Abby’s voice comes through the speaker.

“Mrs. Grey, Mr. Wallace is on line one for you.”

Shit.

“Thank you, Abby.” I look up at Woods, tell him that I’ll let him know what I decide before this afternoon, and pick up the receiver on the phone. “Hi, Scott.”

“Ana, hey. Are you alright?”

My heart sinks. I guess, if he’s heard about it in New York, yesterday’s incident is now national news. “Yeah, thanks.”

“Is Grey…?”

“He’s fine. Everyone was fine.”

He lets out a sigh of relief that sounds surprisingly real through the phone. “Good. Carmen said this morning she wanted to send you flowers or something, but we weren’t sure if you’d be in the office today, or even if something like that would be welcome.”

“I appreciate the thought, but we’re fine. My immediate concern is what book we’re going to put up for Carmen tomorrow.”

“Really?”

My brows knit together. “Of course. I’m in the office, I’d like to my job.”

“Well, when I saw the news coverage last night, I assumed you’d be out for a few days. I only called because Stevens said you were in today and I was surprised.”

“You talked to Stevens? Why?”

“To let him know that Daves’ contract was sent out this morning. I expect it to be signed and returned by end of business today.”

“What?!” Angry heat rises inside of me, scorching away the exhaustion and dread lingering in my bones. “You approved The Black Rose?”

“Like I said, Ana… I thought you were going to be out.”

“Well, I’m not! I’m here, fully prepared to talk to you about why that very decision absolutely cannot be allowed to happen. Jesus, Scott…” My teeth clench as my continually growing anger renders me speechless.

“Look, I know you don’t agree, and that’s a shame, but this was always the right decision, Ana. Daves is a proven best seller, this is going to float you through the rest of the fiscal year. And once his sales make the right impact on our bottom line, you can go ahead with that other title you want.”

If they make the right impact,” I argue, “which I have serious doubts over, that impact won’t be felt for a year. Maybe more. You expect me to ask my author to sit around for that long, praying this novel doesn’t tank and destroy her chances at being published?”

“I’m sorry, Ana. It’s done.”

“And Carmen just approved this, without even discussing it with me?”

He goes on the defensive. “Like I said, we didn’t think you would be in.”

“Do you think cellphones only work inside this building?”

“I thought you probably had more important things to worry about yesterday than getting whatever book you liked best that week to the top of the frontlist. Decisions had to be made and you left the office early. You’re welcome for running your branch while you were gone, by the way.”

I can’t even dignify that with a response. I pull the phone away from my ear, slam it back down on the receiver, and turn back to my computer. On the screen is an open document I’ve used to create an outline of all of the research I’ve done on the current sales climate and competing titles, which I’d planned to go over with Scott on that call. Instead, I exit out and pull up my email.

 

From: Anastasia Grey

Subject: Resignation

Date: April 3rd, 2012, 11:45 AM

To: Carmen Gallagher

Dear Ms. Gallagher,

Please let this letter serve as notification of my resignation from Greenwich Small Press, effective immediately. There is nothing I, nor anyone else, can do to save your publishing house as long as that motherfucking….

 

I stop, take a breath, then let my head fall into my hands. I’m well within my rights to resign. How can I be expected to do what’s asked of me when every time I try to make a change, I’m blocked by the old guard? Scott can preach about how this is the right move until he’s blue in the face but it’s my name that’s on the line here. My credibility. And if this release fails… no, when this release fails, all the blame is going to fall on me.

But I’m not a quitter.

The only thing I’ve ever walked away from my entire life ended up being one my biggest regrets. I’ve spent years now putting what I broke that day back together. And I doubt Scott or Carmen will be as forgiving of me leaving as Christian was. I don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to be seen as the person who throws their hands in the air in defeat every time something gets too difficult. I don’t want to be the girl who things happen to, where everything is outside of my control. This is a shitty hand, but I’m not a novice to this game.

With stubborn determination, I turn for my bag and pull out the beaten up copy of The Black Rose manuscript contained inside. The text on the page seems to mock me as I scan each chapter, picking up mistakes and lazy writing from even just a cursory glance. But this is now my cross to bear. The manuscript has been approved, the contract has been sent, and now I have to find a way to turn this into something remarkable. Or I have to leave.

Maybe it’s a side effect of spending too much time with people named Grey, but, despite how hopeless I feel this manuscript really is, I decide then and there that I’m not going to let it defeat me. I’m not going to throw away the work I’ve put in to fill this seat. Carmen told me when I was hired that she was essentially asking for a miracle, now it’s time for me to produce.

I press my finger into the zero on my phone to page reception.

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?” Penny responds.

“Penny, can you get Hailey Lewis on the line for me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Our conversation is brief. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I’ve failed her over the phone. So, instead, I invite her to lunch. The excitement in her voice stabs at my heart as we agree on a time and place, and when I hang up I feel a crushing sense of disappointment warring with my newfound determination. But my path is set now, thanks to Scott, and the only way to go from here is forward.

I gather my things and make my way out of the office to meet Hailey for lunch, texting on my phone as I go. It’s only after I’ve slipped my phone back into my bag and glanced up to find Woods that I notice the shift in the atmosphere amongst my employees. Stevens is leaning far back in his chair, his feet kicked up on his desk and a gloating smile plastered on his face. Those in his close proximity stare at him with admiration, except for Jacki, who shakes her head and focuses her attention on her own screen. Clearly, the word is out. Scott won, and I lost.

“Stevens,” I say sharply, He blinks and glances lazily in my direction, as if the very act of turning to face me is a great expenditure of effort.

“Ana?”

“I just wanted to congratulate you on how hard you fought for your author. It’s that kind of tenacity that the people who put their careers in our hands every day expect from us. Well done.”

He laughs, gloating again. “Sure.”

“And I’ve decided, since you are so sure that this is the novel that’s going to carry us through the rest of the fiscal year and keep us from closing our doors come Christmas time, that I’m going to personally see to its success.”

The smug look on his face vanishes immediately. “What?”

“You won’t be needed going forward.” I give him a saccharine smile. “I’ll take it from here.”

“That’s my commission,” he argues.

“No, it was your commission. Now, this project is moving in a different direction. A direction that does not include you.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Oh, yes I can. You see, I think you’re under the impression that I’m not your boss, but I am. It is my name on that door and as long as that is true, we’re going to do things my way. Try to go over my head to Wallace again, and you won’t be missing out on commissions, you’ll be packing your things.”

His face grows red as his mouth drops open in shock, and his eyes flit around the room as though he’s looking for support from his fellow co-workers. But no one comes to his defense. Eight pairs of eyes turn to their computers, leaving him alone and dumbfounded.

“Oh,” I continue, stopping on my way out the door to face him again. “And it’s Mrs. Grey.”

A series of disjointed sounds escape his lips as he attempts, and fails, to make a coherent argument, but I don’t stay to see if he regains his composure. I have a lunch appointment. So, I motion for Woods to follow, turn on my heel, and walk through the doors

Shaker + Spear is an upscale seafood restaurant located in a hotel a few blocks from my office. It’s quiet and not too busy, the perfect atmosphere for a meeting. I’m the first to arrive and I wait at the table to for Hailey to join me with a cold glass of Chardonnay, one of Christian’s favorites. The taste reminds me of him, and the memory of a kiss that I can’t quite place in time, so I pick up my phone and send him a text.

Thinking of you. I hope everything is going well today.

Is that what I hope, though? It’s a question that’s been running through my mind all day. I know Christian. I know that this investigation being launched by the city and all of the negative media coverage is getting to him. He wouldn’t have gone into the office today if he wasn’t worried that his absence would derail everything he’s spent the last half a year trying to build. Not after seeing me in the aftermath. For the past seven months he’s heard nothing but no. Elliot, Ros, experts brought in from NASA and research groups all over the world have all told him this dream he has of creating sustainable, unlimited energy is impossible. I wanted to be the person that told him yes. I wanted to be the person who believed in him. But after yesterday, after seeing the destruction caused by his intractability and feeling even an iota of the devastation that would plague me forever if I were to lose him, I’m not sure I can be that anymore. I’m not sure that I can stand by his side and give him my full support and faith when I know what’s at risk. Ros worries for the future of GEH. Carrick worries for the sustainability of the city he’s been charged to protect. And I worry for him.

Calliope was in that building.

“Sorry I’m late!”

I’m pulled out of my thoughts by the jolt of the table as Hailey crashes down into the chair across from me. Her eyes are wide with excitement, her smile stretched wide and open across her face. There is no hint of doubt in her expression, no clue that I’m about to crush her dreams.

“You’re not late,” I assure her. “I was early. Shall we order an appetizer? You’re going to die over their oysters.”

“Yum!” she chirps, then picks up her menu. We chat until the food arrives, or rather, she chats and I listen intently. I haven’t had a conversation with her that’s ever lasted more than a few minutes, and I’m surprised to find how light and fun she is. Like Kate was when we first went to Harvard. I thought, after reading her novel, that I knew her on a level more personal than idle conversation. I imagined her to be serious. Wise beyond her years. Introspective and deeply observational. Discovering her almost childlike persona actually has me far more impressed with her writing ability than I was before. It has me aching to further explore her potential, to learn what else lies below the surface of this seemingly ordinary young woman.

“I haven’t gotten my contract by the way,” she says, as if it were simply a continuation of her previous thought. “You said you were going to send it last week, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

I frown. “Yeah, that’s why I asked you here today.”

“Oh?”

“Hailey…” I pause, unsure how to break this news to her without breaking her heart. “I need you to know that I think you’re incredible.”

Her face falls. “Oh no…”

“I tried everything I could, but the stars just wouldn’t align. It was premature for me to call you and make you an offer, and I’m sorry about that. I was confident that the people above me would see everything I see in you, but the timing just wasn’t right. I can make you a future offer, for next year maybe, but…” My words cut off, and she finishes for me.

“But I’d have to wait.”

“And I don’t think you should have to. Especially because anything I offer you for the future can’t be guaranteed. This is about your work, your talent, and your moment. I don’t want to take that away from you. I believe in your work. I believe that it’s going to do good things for you and for the countless people who will read your words and find hope. That kind of power shouldn’t be caught up in something as mundane as budgeting considerations and bureaucratic power plays.”

“So what do I do?”

“Get a lawyer. Someone who will look out for your interests above everything else. Someone who can help you navigate offers being made to you and the contracts you’ll be asked to sign. Don’t let anyone push you into publishing before your book is perfect. You only get one shot at a first release, and that release will make or break your entire career. Never settle. You should demand the best editors, best artists, and the best representation. You’re worth it. Phoenix is worth it. You’re going to be big, Hailey. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

She nods. “Okay. So–” She’s interrupted as another woman slides into the seat next to her, drops her bag on the floor by her feet, and picks up a glass of water on the table.

“Alright, alright, I’m here. What’s the big emergency? And I swear to god if the next words that come out of your mouth aren’t, ‘I’ve finished my manuscript and am ready to send it to the editors,’ I’m leaving.”

“What a surprise! Hailey, this is Lydia,” I say, gesturing to my agent with a smile.

“Pleasure,” Lydia replies with an uninterested glance in Hailey’s direction. “Do you have a manuscript for me or not, Ana?”

“I do, just not mine.” She looks taken aback for a moment, but I simply reach for my own bag and rise from my seat. “Lydia, this is Hailey. I think the two of you will get along just fine.”

“What are you talking about?” Lydia replies. “Where’s your manuscript, Ana?”

I wink at her, then turn to leave without another word. Maybe it was unethical. There’s probably some violation of my non-compete, despite how careful I was to not actually pitch Phoenix to Lydia. But it’s what I could live with. She’ll be in good hands. The best hands. With Lydia representing here, she might even get a contract with a big five publisher, and that’s what her talent deserves.

With a new spring in my step, I make my way through the restaurant, deciding to stop at the restroom before I rejoin Woods, who’s waiting for me at the front door. But just before I step into the hallway that leads to the bathrooms, someone large and hulking moves into my path, blocking me.

“Wait,” Luke hisses.

“Luke? What are you doing here?”

“Shh.” He leans against the wall, trying to look casual while still blocking me from sight of the bathrooms. He stays that way for a long moment, and just as I’m about to push him aside for being ridiculous, I find out why.

Alexis Young steps out of the bathroom and pauses just a few feet away from us, scanning the restaurant. Her eyes land on the table where Lydia is still sitting with Hailey, and her face falls with disappointment.

“Shit.” I hear her hiss. Then she storms out of the restaurant and disappears from view.

“Holy fuck,” I breathe in disbelief. “What is she doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Luke says. “She’s following all of you.”

“All of us?”

“You, Mia, Kate, Grey…. She was at the hospital when Kate went into labor, she trails Mia to every one of her ballet rehearsals, and she spends every morning at the coffee shop across the street from your office. I saw her yesterday, at GEH, and she looked… I don’t know, disappointed?”

My heart stops. “Disappointed? In what? That Christian got out? She wants him dead?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’ve been following her for a few weeks now and I can’t derive any kind of motive. I’ve searched her car, but haven’t found any weapons. I’ve tapped her phone, but she’s not getting calls or instructions from anyone. I’ve got her emails and her browsing history on surveillance, but nothing. She just… follows you. Never getting close enough for you to see her, but always so that whoever she’s tailing is in her line of sight.”

“So she’s keeping tabs on us,” I assume. “She’s keeping track of where we are and relaying that information back to someone. Someone from the police department, someone we haven’t uncovered from the conspiracy…” My voice grows more and more shrill with each word, until Luke reaches out to cover my mouth.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I’ll find out. In the meantime, I need you to stay with Woods. No more waiting at the door bullshit.”

A familiar feeling creeps over me, the same feeling that encapsulated my entire life last year. The feeling of knowing that Leila was out there, watching me, waiting for a moment of weakness, and feeling it again makes me nauseous.

“No,” I say firmly. “No, we’re not waiting anymore. Every second she’s out there, Calliope, Mia, Kate… they’re all in danger. And I’m not going to sit idly by and wait for our enemies to make the first move anymore.”

“Ana…”

“You’ll set up a meeting. I don’t care how, I don’t care where. I don’t care if she knows I’m coming or if we have to ambush her, but I’m going to confront her. I’m going to find out what she wants and take care of it before it has the chance to fester into something that will come back and destroy us.”

“You know I can’t do that, Ana. This isn’t like Kozlowski or even Harrington. She was Gresham’s submissive, a man we know was dangerous. Who threatened violence against your sister-in-law and who was in the very deepest parts of Lincoln’s circle. This girl could be an actual threat and I’m not going to voluntarily put you in harm’s way.”

“I’m already in harm’s way. As long as she’s out there, she’s a threat, and I will no longer tolerate threats against me or my family. She’s a problem that needs to be taken care of and I will do that with or without your help.”

“Ana–”

“Are you going to get me a meeting, or not?”

His eyes dart between mine, obviously looking for some kind of hesitation he can prey on to change my mind, so I ensure he doesn’t find any. I purposefully exude every ounce of confidence I feel in my gut, and eventually he sighs.

“It’ll take me a few days. Maybe weeks. Once I find a way to do this so that you’re safe, then we’ll talk about setting up a meeting.”

“Good.” I lean forward, feeling slightly guilty for speaking to my best friend the way I just did, and kiss him softly on the cheek. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now get out of here, and stay with your bodyguard, Anastasia. I mean it. I’ll call Taylor.”

“What are you following me too? How do you know how often I’m apart from Woods?”

“If I told you, you’d try to avoid me, and I can’t have that.”

My eyes narrow. “Don’t you have a girlfriend you could be stalking?”

“Nah, she stays where she’s supposed to, unlike someone I know.” He gives me a look that dares me to challenge him, but I don’t. I simply roll my eyes and turn away.

“I’ll be waiting for your call, Lucas,” I say in a sing song voice as I walk away. For a few more steps, I wait for some biting response, but it never comes. He doesn’t say anything. And when I turn to face him again, he’s gone. Disappeared, like a shadow at high noon.

“How does he do that?” I whisper to myself, and then realize, that’s how he keeps track of people. Me. Alexis. He can probably see me now and is having quite the laugh over me looking like an idiot, searching the restaurant to find him. I won’t give him the satisfaction. I turn and head outside, staying half a step in front of Woods the entire way back to the office.

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 15

seattle-fire-2_kiro-7_620-620x370

She could have slapped me. She could have stormed up to me, pulled her fist as far back as she could reach and punched me hard across the face. It still wouldn’t be as devastating as those six words. Woods reaches out with his arms, holding them around me like he’s afraid I’m going to drop Calliope, or maybe just to take her from me, but I don’t relinquish her. The news of Christian being in imminent danger, that he might be hurt or worse, only makes me cling more tightly to our daughter.

“Ros…”

She shakes her head, then dashes the tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands and turns away from me. The police officer who has spent all afternoon keeping me back is standing a few feet away from us, facing the building and listening to the words coming through the speaker attached to his shoulder. She grabs his arm to get his attention.

“I need to know about the lab.”

“Ma’am, step back please.” He takes hold of her forearms, the same as he did to me, and tries to steer her back towards the crowd. She shakes him off, refusing to be dismissed.  

“This is my company and I need to know what’s happening to my people down there.”

“I’m sure you’re worried, but I don’t have any information for you at this time. If you could just step back and…”

“Christian Grey is trapped in that lab!”  She screams the words at him and waves her arm in the direction of the still smoking building. Behind me, the whispers of speculation and prayers from the crowd of onlookers that have been like a constant buzzing background noise for the last few hours goes silent. There is a reporter standing only twenty feet away from us and she stops in the middle of whatever she’s saying into the camera to gape back at us. Everything seems to stop. One second in time that’s suspended outside of reality, and then it all comes crashing down.

The police officer grabs the radio and reiterates what Ros just told him into it, which comes across more as confirmation than new information. Someone behind me shouts that Christian is dead and the sentiment is carried through the crowd like the swell of a wave, repeated over and over again.

“For god’s sake!” Ros shouts, her words like venom as she turns to face them. “His child is right here!”

“Ros!” My eyes flash in warning, then I turn to Woods in a panic. My hands shake as I reach out for him and simultaneously lower Calliope’s face to my shoulder. “Your jacket, now! Give me your jacket.”

He shrugs out of the dark gray suit jacket and hands it over to me. I manage to throw it over Calliope just before the reporter is able navigate her way across the glass covered sidewalk with her camera crew and shoves her microphone in my face.

“Mrs. Grey, KIRO 7 news. Can you confirm that your husband is trapped inside the laboratory where the explosion took place?”

“I, uh…” Calliope starts to cry again, incensed as she fights against my hold to get out from under the jacket. The reporter’s eyes flash down to her shape in my arms with a desperate kind of hunger. She covers the microphone with her hand and leans into her film crew.

“Keep the camera on the baby.”

Shit. I turn my back on her and look at our nanny, hoping my eyes convey how desperately I need to her listen and not ask questions. “Kensie, take Calliope. Go back to the house and pretend like everything is normal. Mommy and Daddy are just working late. We’ll meet you there as soon as we can.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey.”

I move between Kensie and the camera, using my body to block as much of Calliope as I can while I shift her into the nanny’s arms just in case the jacket slips. “Keep her covered.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kensie reaches down for my hand and squeezes my fingers. It’s a simple gesture of support, caring, but it feels too much like a condolence. I yank my hand out of her hold like she’s burned me.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey.”

“It’s fine, just go.”

She nods, then wraps Calliope tighter in her arms as she turns to leave. The crowd behind her is tight, rowdy with the arrival of those with family members who work in the building, and my heart clenches while I watch her try to push through them. I nearly call her back when I see her and my still crying child being jostled by people trying to get the officer at the line’s attention by screaming their questions over the constant noise of the crowd.  

“Woods, go with Calliope,” I say, not taking my eyes off Kensie’s ponytail, the only part of her I can track through the sea of people. “Don’t let anyone near her and keep reporters away from the gates once you get home. I don’t want her to be scared.”

“Mrs. Grey…” He leans in real close to keep the microphones still held in my direction from picking up what he’s saying. “My orders come for your husband and I’ve been instructed never to leave your side.”

“Then he can yell at me for sending you away after they pull him out of that lab!” I should care that there are cameras on me. I should care that everyone within earshot is hanging on my every word, hoping for some kind of new information I might have simply because of who I am to the company’s CEO. But I don’t. The only thing I care about is what is happening to my husband right now and that Calliope isn’t exposed and put in danger of being targeted because we weren’t careful enough with her in a crowd of strangers. Still, he doesn’t move to follow after Kensie.

“Mrs. Grey, perhaps you should come back to the house with—“

“No! No, I’m not going anywhere.” I lean in too, meeting him the rest of the way, and wrap my arms around his neck in a hug so that I can press my lips right up to his ear. “Please, Evan. The only thing that is going to keep me together right now is knowing that Calliope is at home safe. I need you to make sure that happens. I need you to make sure that she’s not scared. Please.”

He hesitates, but eventually nods. I mouth the words ‘thank you’ to him, and he turns me back to face Ros, Andrea, and Olivia.

“Those three,” he says, pointing at each of them in turn with his index finger. “You never leave their side. Do you understand me? Not for anything.”

The look on Ros’s face as she stares at the building tells me that she’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s an easy promise for me to make.

“I won’t leave until he’s out.”

“Alright. Then… keep your cell on you, and take this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slender black cylinder. I recognize it instantly, because Luke made me carry a similar one last year after we found out Leila was following me. Pepper spray.

“Stay safe, Ana.” It’s the first time he’s used my name instead of Mrs. Grey, and I once again have to bite my lip to keep it from trembling. I give him a nod, because it’s all I can manage, and he turns and snakes through the crowd, following Kensie and Calliope to the car. It’s one weight of a million lifted off my shoulders and I get just one second to breathe freely. But sending my bodyguard away has immediate consequences and it comes in the form of hands that grab me from behind.

“Mrs. Grey, do you have any information to give the public regarding Christian Grey’s condition?”

The reporter. Without Woods hovering inches behind me, she’s immediately more aggressive. I try to take a step back, but she takes one with me, her microphone held so closely to my lips I’m sure she’s picking up the sounds of my breathing. It’s suffocating and more than a little intimidating, but thankfully the sound of clacking heels and repeated no, no, no’s bring Jaqueline to my rescue.

“That’ll be enough, Susan,” she says, getting in between me and the reporter with her arms held out in front of her like a protective barrier. “Mrs. Grey will not be answering any questions at this time.”

The reporter leans back on her heels and raises a skeptical eyebrow at her, but Jaqueline holds her ground. With a shake of her head, Miss Kiro 7 News steps back and motions for her camera crew to follow her back to their previous recording spot. They stop though, when an important looking town car pulls up on the street just behind us and Carrick steps out.

“Mayor Grey!” She picks up the cord to her microphone and makes towards the street, but the crowd keeps her from ambushing him. The frustration of being denied access to yet another important interview is clear on her face as she holds out her microphone and attempts to shout questions over the noise of people, street traffic, and emergency crews, but by the time Carrick makes it to me his security team has escorted her away.

“Ana,” Carrick breathes in relief, immediately pulling me into a tight embrace. “Thank god, you’re not hurt.”

I shake my head against the lapels of his jacket, holding back tears. “I wasn’t here. I was walking and I heard the explosion…” There’s more I want to say, but my throat is growing tighter with each and every word.

“Where’s Calliope?”

“Home,” I reply lamely. “With Kensie and Woods.”

“And Christian? Is he…?”

I can’t hold it back anymore. I let out a choking sob into his chest and start to shake. “I don’t know, I don’t know. All they’ve told me is there was an explosion in the R&D lab and he was inside. I don’t even know if they’re trying to get him out…”

“Let me see what I can find out.” He kisses the crown of my head and then releases me, moving with purpose towards the same officer who has rebuked both Ros and I all day. I turn and glance back at Christian’s partner and best friend. She has one arm folded so tightly across the front of her designer jacket that I’m not sure how she’s breathing, and three fingers from her other hand are pressed to her lips.

“They’re going to get him out,” I tell her, wrapping an arm around her back and laying my head on her shoulder. “They have to get him out.”

“Unlimited energy,” she replies. Her eyes are glassy with worry again and I’m not entirely sure the words she says aloud are directed at me. “This is what happens when you try to fuck around with the laws of physics. God damn it, I told him…” Her lips press tightly together and she takes a deep breath through her nose. “I swear to god, if he makes it out of there alive, I’m going to kill him.”

With all the uncertainty still hanging in the air, her words would be a cruel if I couldn’t see how much it hurts her to say them. She’s terrified, not just for her building or for her company, but for her best friend. So I squeeze her tighter, and let myself fall apart on her pretty jacket.

“I know. Me too.”

“Oh, Ana…” She turns and takes me into her arms, holding me up as I devolve into a sobbing mess. There’s too much here that’s too familiar. My eyes screw tightly shut to fight against the tears rolling down my cheeks, but blocking out everything going on around me only allows new visions to fill my head. Memories of Christian in a hospital bed, battered and unresponsive. The pain on his face during physical therapy that helped him regain his strength after surgery. The sound of the gunshot that gave him the wound that made physical therapy necessary in the first place.

“Oh god, what is it?”

I look up from Ros’ shoulder and see Elliot standing a few yards away. His eyes are wide and terrified. His hair is windblown. His cheeks are pink. Did he run here from Escala?

“What’s happened?” he asks again, moving closer to me. “Christian isn’t…?”

I shake my head, or maybe I’m just shaking so hard it does it all on its own. “I don’t know.”

“Jesus.” He takes me from Ros and tucks me inside his strong arms, then looks over the heads of the police officers and paramedics roaming around the empty space in front of us like they’re going to have all the answers. “Dad? Dad!”

One arm leaves my shoulder as Elliot reaches up to wave his father over to us, and while Carrick approaches, he turns me so that I’m facing him too. It’s not just Carrick walking towards us. He’s flanked on either side by a police officer and a fireman, both of whom wear important looking badges that I assume mean they’re in command.

“Well?” Elliot demands.

“The fire from explosion caused a collapse at the entryway. The parking garage above them caved in and now they’re trapped behind a wall of rubble and rebar. We can’t shift anything until we know it won’t cause a further collapse.”

Elliot looks at the fire chief. “I can help with that. I’m an engineer and I built this building. I know everything about it, brick by brick.”

“Good, get to the lobby,” the fire chief says. “My men will tell you where to go from there.”

Elliot nods and runs forward, but no one has asked or answered the only question I care about. “What about the people inside? Is anyone… hurt?” It’s the most I can stand to ask.

The police chief frowns. “We’re not sure, Mrs. Grey. The power system has failed inside the lab and all of our efforts to get some form of communication inside have failed.”

“What do you mean failed?”

“Oh my god.” Ros hand drops from her mouth to her chest. “He was worried about hacking… The lab was encased in lead so outside signals couldn’t get through to the systems inside.”

Because he had been hacked before. Because Andrew Lincoln had used the GEH servers against him before.

Ros takes a breath, and regains all of the composure she’s let slip since she was pulled out of the building. “So, we don’t even know if they’re alive in there?”

“No, ma’am. But we are doing everything in our power to get to them and get them out safely, I promise you that.”

“Oh, god!” I double over and begin sobbing into my hands again. Carrick is at my side in the next instant, pulling me back into him and nodding towards the officers.

“Then get to it, Captain. Keep me updated of any progress.”

“Yes, sir,” the officer responds, and both he and the fire chief turn and hurry away from us.

Carrick attempts to comfort me, but there’s no way I could find comfort in the hours that follow. I had thought, foolishly, that Elliot’s involvement in the rescue would move things along. That he would be so desperate to save his brother that he’d throw caution to the wind and dive head first into the debris that had him enclosed inside the lab. But he doesn’t. He spends hours evaluating the structural integrity of the support beams surrounding the caved in opening, ensuring that moving any of the concrete won’t cause further collapse. The logical part of me understands why this is a necessity. But my heart seems to tear further apart with every passing minute that Christian doesn’t emerge from the GEH building.

As the sun sinks low in the sky, and the shadows from the other skyscrapers around us grow longer over the sidewalk where we stand, the crowd noise begins to die down. Dusk sets in and the only sound left is staccato thud of helicopter blades over head and the shouts of the emergency crews below. I can’t feel anything. Not the pangs of hunger or the dry ache of thirst. My phone has been buzzing non-stop in my bag, but I ignore it. When candles start being passed around, like defeat has been accepted and we’re now collectively mourning the loss of the eight people now confirmed to have been in the lab at the time of the explosion, I hear a voice echo inside my head that I haven’t heard outside of my nightmares since that fateful night last July.

Looks like I still got him in the end.

“No!” I scream, pulling each of my hands out of Carrick’s and Ros’ hold. They look at me like they think I’ve lost it, and maybe I have. I shake my head, trying to dispel the echo of Andrew Lincoln’s voice, and back away from my loved ones. “I can’t stand here anymore. I can’t stay here and wait, doing nothing!” The police charged with crowd control have thinned out over the last few hours, giving me an opportunity to slip through and make it to the building if I run. I take it.

Carrick shouts my name to get me to come back and the few officers that are too far away to actually do anything issue warnings, but that’s not what stops me. A pair of strong hands latches onto my arm from behind and yanks me back. I look over my shoulder and nearly break down again when I see who has ahold of me.

“Ma’am, get back!” An officer yells at me, his hand on the gun at his hip as he runs towards us, but Luke holds out his hand to try and diffuse the situation.

“I’ve got her, Officer,” he says. “Her husband is inside, you have to understand.”

“Yeah, well.” He takes his hand off his gun, and motions with his head towards the crowd. “Just get back in line.”

“Yes, sir.” Luke nods, then tightens his fingers around my arm as he leads me back to the same place I stood next to Carrick and Ros, except now Jade is there too, waiting with a jacket and a pair of sneakers in her hand.

“I saw you on TV,” she says, holding the shoes out for me. “I thought you could use these.”

“Thank you,” I whisper, unable to fully express my gratitude under the weight of my grief. She smiles anyway, and helps hold me up as I switch out my shoes.

“I’ll take those, Mrs. Grey,” Andrea says, reaching out for my heels. I hand them over but look down at them in disgust. They’re a part of today. They’re a part of this nightmare.

“I never want to see those again,” I tell her. She nods, then my attention is drawn away by the jacket Luke drapes over my shoulders.

Finally, long after dark has fallen and the clock has ticked past midnight, the metallic whir of saws echoing through the air stops. My breath catches in my throat and my eyes move away from the front doors for the first time in hours, searching for paramedics preparing to enter the building to care for the wounded after they’ve been extracted. There’s nothing though. Only a heavy silence that permeates everything around me.

My heart thuds in my ears. I shiver, but not because I’m cold. My future, my entire reason for living, is hanging in the balance, and I know in the deepest parts of me that this is it. I’m about to get the answers I’ve been waiting for all day. But when five minutes turn to twenty, then thirty… I’m not certain I’m ready for them anymore.

Please be okay.

Please be okay.

Please be okay.

“Look!” someone behind me yells. My eyes, closed in silent prayer, snap open and turn back to the doors. The emergency crews are wheeling a gurney out of the building and the sight of it floods my entire body with fear until I see the group of men ambling out behind it. Barney, Welch, three men in ash darkened lab coats, Taylor, and then…

“Christian!” I sprint forward and for the first time, no one stops me. He turns in the direction I call out his name, then abandons the medical professionals there to examine him and his team, and rushes towards me. We meet at the top of the steps, halfway between the building and the sidewalk, and I leap into his open arms. Dust and ash from his clothes surround us in a choking, murky cloud when my body makes impact with his, but I don’t notice. I’m single minded as my lips come crashing into his.

“Christian!” I sob into his mouth. “Oh, thank God! Thank God! I was so scared I was going to lose you.”  

“Never. I’m right here, baby.”

A days worth of anxiety and grief begin pouring out of me, and I can’t hold it back. His arms snake around me, holding me against him as though he’ll never let me go again, and he whispers a long myriad of promises and reassurances into my hair. I take a deep breath, and manage to calm myself enough to pull away from him, then glance up into his eyes.

“Oh my god, you’re bleeding…”

“Oh.” He reaches up and touches his hair line, which is matted with dark, congealed blood. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

But he’s not. Now that the initial relief of knowing he’s safe has passed, I can see the damage. He looks as though he’s been torn straight out of war movie. Every part of him is gray with dust, except the lines down the side of his face that are streaked with the color of flesh from sweat dripping down his brow. His fine clothes are branded with large swaths of black from the heat and flames of the explosion. His normal musk is gone, replaced by something acrid that has a distinct chemical quality to it. His beautiful face is painted with exhaustion.

“Christian Trevelyan-Grey!” Ros storms up into the space between us and shoves him roughly enough that he stumbles backward a few paces. He quickly regains his equilibrium, and looks at her in confusion.

“Ros?”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”

“It was an acc-” His words cut off as she shoves him again, though he doesn’t lose his balance the way he did before. They stand a few yards apart, staring each other down until Ros finally breaks with a chest heaving gasp and throws her arms around him. “I am going to yell at you so hard tomorrow.”

“I know,” he breathes back. “I know.”

She lowers her face into his dust covered shirt, takes a deep breath, and then moves aside for Carrick. Both men seem to stiffen as they stand before one another, waiting for the other to speak first. Apparently, not even tragedy is enough to break through this cold war they’re currently fighting.

“Are you hurt?” Carrick asks at last. Christian shakes his head.

“No, I’m fine. It was close but… I’m fine.”

“Good.” The Adam’s apple in Carrick’s throat bobs as he nods his head, and, after a moment of hesitation, he steps forward and wraps his arms around his son. “Don’t do that to me again, Christian.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Carrick nods, and sniffs hard. “I know.”

They pull apart, but Carrick doesn’t let go of Christian’s shoulder. Instead, he glances behind him, at the building, and his face turns serious.

“Look, I need to warn you. They’re going to–”

“Mr. Grey?” We all turn and see a young police officer approach the stairs from the direction of the building. Carrick’s hand immediately falls from Christian’s shirt.

“Yes?” he answers.

“I’m going to need you to come with me to triage, sir. Have a medical team look you over.”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“I’m sorry, sir. That’s not an option.”

“It’s always an option. I know what an AMA is, consider this a refusal to be treated.”

“Well, if you’re refusing medical care, then I need you to step over here so we can have talk about the incident. I’m going to need a statement.”

“Oh.” He looks around blankly for a moment, caught unprepared, then nods. But Carrick calls out to stop him as he begins to follow the officer away from us.

“Christian!” He stops and turns back again. Carrick’s jaw tenses as though he’s trying to find a way to work around something he can’t bring himself to say. “Just… don’t say anything without a lawyer present.”

“What’s going on?”

“Sir, if you’ll come with me.” The officer tries to nudge him forward, but Christian doesn’t move.

“Dad?”

“Go, Son,” Carrick says. “Just remember that you don’t have to answer anything without a lawyer.”

I watch Christian’s chest expand with a deep breath before he breaks eye contact with his father and moves to follow the officer across the courtyard.

“Wait, is he being arrested?” I ask.

“No,” Carrick confirms. “Just detained until he can be questioned.”

“Questioned about what? What’s going on?”

That same look of being torn apart by some unsaid words crosses his face, and he shakes his head again. “You should call his lawyer, Ana.”

“Lawyer? You’re his lawyer, Carrick.”

“No, I’m not. Not anymore.” He takes a few steps closer to me, then hooks his fingers around my arm and pulls me aside. “Ana, this isn’t going to go away. He caused an explosion in the middle of the city. Three civilians were injured and I don’t even know what’s happened to the guy they brought out of the lab on a stretcher. The city of Seattle is going to have to open an investigation into what happened here today, and I’m the mayor now. It’s my job to oversee that investigation, so I can’t be apart of it. I can’t help you.”

I blink, feeling like all the air is sucked out of my lungs at once. “What does an investigation mean?”  

He swallows, and shakes his head again. “Call his lawyer, Ana.”

I nod, then move to Ros. Without Carrick, I’m not exactly sure which lawyer I need to get down here and she knows Christian’s corporate legal team better than anyone. She gives me a name, Andrea gets me a number, and thirty minutes later my husband has a team of men in pristine suits behind him refusing to let him answer any questions. It drags the entire interrogation process out, which seems excessive since he hasn’t been charged with anything. Elliot can’t stay to wait for answers because he’s got a new baby at home and Ros opts to go with the man who was injured in the explosion, a lab tech named Sheldon who broke his leg under falling debris. When the first rays of dawn start to color the sky above us, it’s only Luke and I left, and he holds tightly to my hand until Christian finally returns.

“Ready?” he asks, his voice like gravel and his eyes heavy with fatigue.

“Yes,” I reply, then turn to Luke. “Thank you for waiting with me.”

“Of course. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Christian gives him a tight smile and half a nod, then takes my hand out of his and leads me down to the street. There’s a car waiting for us, though it’s not being driven by anyone I recognize. I can see the clear wire connected to his earpiece though, so I assume it’s someone on Christian’s security team.

“Where to, Mr. Grey?” the driver asks.

“Home, please.” The driver nods and signals to turn into oncoming traffic, and Christian’s head falls against the headrest.

“What happened?” I ask.

“I don’t even know.” He opens his eyes and looks at me, but the cool confidence he normally exudes is gone. “We thought we’d figured it out. Welch built a prototype and I went down there to see it in action, but the cooling mechanisms gave out thirty seconds into his demonstration. There were safety precautions in place and every single one of them failed. Over and over again. We did everything we could to stop it, but it just kept getting hotter and hotter until eventually…”

“It exploded,” I finish for him.

He nods. “Thankfully the blast went up instead of out so we were able to avoid the shockwave. But everything was on fire then, blocking our way out, and the suppression system was damaged in the explosion. It took us over an hour to get it under control and then everything caved in. It was like every time we solved one crisis, something else happened.”

I shiver as I imagine what he’s gone through, then unbuckle my seatbelt and crawl into his lap.

“Ana…”

“No,” I whimper, cutting him off before he can tell me to get back in my own seat. My fingers curl into his shirt and I lay my head down on his shoulder, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall of his chest. It takes him a few seconds to accept that I’m not going to let him move me back onto the leather seat next to him, but once he does his arms wrap around me and he lays his cheek against my hair.

“I’m sorry, Christian.”

“We’re okay. Everyone was okay.” He kisses the top of my head, and we make the rest of the drive home in silence. The sky overhead is orange with the rising sun by the time we pull into the driveway. It’s nearly seven, and we should both be dead with exhaustion. But if Kensie got Calliope down at a decent hour last night, she should be waking at any time.

“I need a shower,” Christian tells me once we step into the kitchen.

I nod. “I’m going to check on the baby. I’ll be up in a minute.”

“Okay.” He leans over and kisses me softly on the lips, then untangles our fingers and pulls away from me. I feel immediately bereft. Not enough of the doubt and dread that plagued me all day yesterday have been washed away for me to feel comfortable having him out of my reach. I need him to hold me. I need to feel his heart beating under my hands and the heat of his skin pressed against mine. I decide I’m going to slip into the shower with him, maybe ask him to make love to me before we finally give in to our heavy eyelids and get some much needed sleep, but first I make my way up to the nursery.

The door to the guest room where Kensie sleeps when she stays overnight is closed, so I assume Calliope is still fast asleep. With as much care as I can manage, I ease open the door and tip toe across the floor, moving as slowly as possible as I glance over the railing of her crib. She’s staring at the mobile over her head, silent but wide awake. That is, until she sees me.

“Mama?”

My shoulders fall as all my plans for this morning fly out the window, but I smile and reach down to scoop her in my arms. She molds her body around mine and after giving her a few good morning kisses, I get her changed and let her help me pick out what she wants to wear for the day before I take her down to the kitchen for breakfast.

I expect things to be different. Our staff surely saw the news coverage of the accident and assumed that they wouldn’t be needed today, so I mentally go through what’s already been prepared for Calliope and debate whether or not I’ll need to make something for Christian or if he’ll want to get straight into bed. But when we get downstairs, it’s like I’ve walked into the movie Groundhog’s Day.

Gail stands in front of the stove, an omelet frying in the pan in front of her. Kensie is sipping a cup of coffee as she lays Calliope’s breakfast down on the tray of her high chair. And Christian stands behind the counter, dressed in a fresh suit, typing furiously on the iPhone in his hand. The scene is too familiar, too much like any other day. Like we haven’t been living through a nightmare for the past 16 hours.

“What are you doing?” I ask Christian as I place Calliope in her highchair. He doesn’t answer me right away, choosing instead to finish his email, or text, or whatever it is he’s doing with his phone.

“I’ve got to get back to the office,” he says, after finally putting down his phone and picking up the mug of coffee Gail has poured for him.

“What? What do you mean you’re going back to the office? Don’t you think you should stay home and take it easy for a few days?”

His phone buzzes on the counter and he picks it up while he answers me. “I can’t. I’ve got to be there to survey the damage, meet with my lawyer, and work with Andrea to find an offsite facility that’s large enough to relocate the fusion project to. Jacqueline is in a panic. This whole ordeal is going to be a PR nightmare and I’m going to need all the public support I can get now that everyone knows what we’re doing.”

My stomach drops. “Wait. You’re… you’re not going to scrap the project?”

“Of course not. We had a breakthrough yesterday.”

“Yeah, right before it exploded.”

“And we’ve learned from it.” He drains the rest of his coffee, slips his phone into his pocket, and moves across the kitchen to give me a kiss goodbye. “You should stay home today. Get some sleep.”

“Me? What about you?”

“I’ll be fine.” His hand brushes my cheek, and he gives me a small smile that I think is meant to be reassuring, but it misses that mark by about a hundred miles. I’m at a loss for words. What could I possibly say to explain why I don’t want him to go back to that building today that isn’t already obvious?

He leans down to kiss the top of Calliope’s head then looks up as the security officer who drove us home this morning enters the kitchen. Christian nods to him, then tells me he loves me again before following him out of the kitchen. And I watch him go, feeling like I’m stranded on an island in the middle of shark infested waters.

Next Chapter

Chapter 14

czpuhklxeaaaer0

Kate is only able to hold Kennedy for about ten minutes or so before the exhaustion from labor really hits her. She fights it, but her body is weak and the nurses insist she get some rest before they make a first attempt at breastfeeding. Reluctantly, she allows Elliot to take their daughter out of her arms, then we all watch as the nurse takes feet and hand prints and lays her on the scale.

I can’t take my eyes off of her. Her tiny fingers. Her squirmy little legs. My mind immediately begins to divide her features between Kate and Elliot, but it’s difficult. Calliope is my twin. Well, except for her eyes, which belong to Christian. Kennedy seems much more evenly split. Both her parents are blonde, so the wisps of wheat colored hair that top her head aren’t a surprise. She’ll be beautiful, like her mother, but her features will be strong and pronounced like her father. Not even her eyes, the same green as Kate’s but flecked with Elliot’s blue, could be claimed by just one of them. But the combination is gorgeous.

“God, look at her,” Elliot says, awed. “She’s so pretty.”

I nod. “Yeah. She is.”

“She’s… perfect.” A smile plays at his lips, but never fully forms, and I think it’s because he’s too distracted trying to memorize her. He’s raptured, already falling head over heels in love, and watching him gets me choked up.

“We’ll take her to the nursery, Mr. Grey,” the nurse smiles. “Your family will be able to see her there once you’re ready.”

“Thank you.” He nods, so the nurse places Kennedy in a plastic bin and begins to push her from the room, but Elliot calls out to stop her. “Wait!”

“Yes, Mr. Grey?”

“Just…” He takes a nervous breath. “Just be careful with her. It took my wife nine months to make her.”

The nurse smiles. “No need to worry, Mr. Grey. I’ll make sure little Miss Kennedy here is attended to like the VIP patient she is.”

“Good.” He nods again and when the nurse leaves with the baby, he immediately returns to Kate’s bedside and takes her hand. She’d been dozing, and Elliot’s touch wakes her with a start. “I’m sorry,” he says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like someone ripped my insides out through my vagina.” She attempts a laugh, but the pitiful sound dies out quickly as her eyelids start to droop again.

“Then, I’ll let you rest and Ana and I will go tell the family.” He picks up her hand and kisses each of her fingers. “You are an incredible woman, Katherine. Thank you for what you’ve given me today.”

“Mmm.” Her hands reach out blindly for him and when she touches the side of his face, she pulls him into her until their lips meet. “I love you, Elliot.”

“I love you too. Now sleep, baby. I’ll come check on you in a bit.”

She tries to nod, but her she’s already drifting off. Her eyelids close and her head lolls to the side. Elliot brushes the backs of his fingers over her cheek and looks down on her with a kind of veneration that is too personal for me to intrude upon. I step out to wait in the hallway and, seconds later, Elliot joins me. He eases the door closed so that he won’t wake Kate, but once the metal parts of the latch clink together, he turns and nearly collapses against the wall.

“You alright?” I check, moving closer and placing a supportive hand on his arm. He nods, but closes his eyes.

“I’m a father. This morning, I was just… checking a foundation against a blueprint and now I’m a father.”

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“And terrifying. I can do this, right?”

“Of course you can. Elliot, all that little girl needs from you is to love her unconditionally, and you have the biggest heart of anyone I know.”

He smiles. “It’s amazing how fast they wrap you around their finger, right? I thought it was going to feel weird, but it doesn’t. It feels like she was always here. Like she’s always been mine. Shit, mine. I have a daughter.”

“Yes, you do.” I laugh. “And a gorgeous one at that.”

He holds his arms out and pulls me into a lung crushing hug. “Thank you for being there for my wife today. I know going back there must have been hard for you.”

I inhale deeply, but squeeze him right back. “I’ll always be there. For all three of you.”

“I know, and that’s why I love you so much. Really, though. I love you, Ana. I’m grateful everyday that Christian found you and brought you into our family. You make us all a little bit better.”

The honest confession takes me off guard, so I’m unprepared for the wave of emotion that hits me. My throat feels tight, my eyes well with tears… I sniff, pull back, and give him a skeptical look. “You going soft on me, Elliot?”

He grins. “My daughter was born twenty minutes ago. Give me a pass this one time, huh?”

“No pass needed. I love you too, Elliot.”

He leans down and kisses me hard on the forehead, then hooks his arm through mine and drags me through the maternity ward so we can break the good news to the rest of the family.

When we come through the double doors, we find everyone seated together in a tight group of chairs close to the information desk. Calliope is standing on wobbily legs in Christian’s lap, facing him, with her wrists clasped tightly in his hands for balance. She’s clearly enjoying the attention of everyone around her, and as she stares pointedly at her daddy, she happily babbles away to her heart’s content. He responds every time she pauses to take a breath, like they’re having the most engaging conversation he’s ever been apart of, and my already full heart expands nearly to the point of bursting.

“There they are!” Grace exclaims, jumping out of her seat and rushing over to us. “Well?”

Elliot grins. “Her name is Kennedy. She weighs 8lbs, and 3oz. She has all ten fingers, and all ten toes, and both she and Kate are doing great.”

“Oh, congratulations, sweetheart!” Grace throws her arms around Elliot as joyful tears run down her cheeks. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Congratulations, Son,” Carrick says, taking Grace’s place the moment she releases Elliot.

“Thanks, Dad.” Carrick pats his back a few times, the way guys always do to make physical contact between them less intimate, and then Mia slides in to wrap her arms around his waist.

“Can we see her?” Christian asks, trying to speak through the fingers Calliope keeps putting in his mouth.

“Yeah, she’s in the nursery.” Elliot turns to lead us back through the doors we just came through, and Grace reaches down to take Carrick’s hand. Mr. and Mrs. Kavanagh grip both of Elliot’s hands, congratulating him and saying again and again how proud they are to have him as a son in law.

“Ah, thanks, Ma,” Elliot replies, his face flushed with embarrassment. Mrs. Kavanagh kisses his cheek and then hurries through the doors after Grace and Carrick. Calliope leans over, arms stretched out for me, so I take her and follow suit. Christian’s hand rests softly on my lower back and when the doors swing closed behind us, he places a kiss against my temple.

“Hey,” I say softly, then reach up to grab his chin and tilt his face towards mine. I stop and kiss him. Really kiss him. “I love you.”

He hums with pleasure. “Not like I love you.” His lips press to mine again, softly this time, and quick, like a secret just between the two of us. “Now, behave,” he whispers. “Or I’ll pull you into an empty room and finish what I started this morning.”

“And that’s supposed to make me behave because…?”

He laughs, then nudges me forward again, and I pout a little as we make our way to the nursery.

There are four other newborns currently being adored by their families, so the nursery is crowded. Christian and I stay back and watch Kennedy being introduced to her grandparents through the large viewing window in the hallway. Mia leans as far forward as the glass will allow, her elbows resting on the metal ledge between the window and the drywall. She looks the way I felt when I watched them put my brand new niece into Kate’s arms for the first time. I reach over and affectionately rub my hand over her back.

“Do you see the baby?” Christian asks, leaning closer into Calliope, who is still sitting on my hip.

“UnNen,” she replies, pressing her hands against the glass and looking at Elliot. It’s her best attempt at ‘Uncle’. The speech therapist Christian hired to work with her while she’s at school has already helped her develop language skills far beyond what’s expected for her age, especially in terms of vocabulary and the ability to repeat words we give her, but she still can’t quite grasp the ‘L’ sound.

“That’s right,” he says. “That’s Uncle Elliot and Aunt Kate’s baby. Kennedy. She’s your cousin.”

Calliope gasps and stares at the pink bundle Grace lifts into her arms. When she turns back to Christian her fingers curl into tight fists and she shakes excitedly. “Ooh!”

We both laugh.

“Yeah, I think they’re going to be best friends,” I say, brushing my finger under her chin. Christian nods. We watch for several minutes, until both sets of Grandparents give their final kisses to Elliot and the baby and step out into the hall to join us.

“My turn!” Mia says. She rushes around the corner, slowing only when she comes through the door of the nursery. Elliot looks up and motions through the glass for Christian and I to join them.

“Do you want to meet, Kennedy?” I ask Calliope. She bounces in my arms.

“Kenny!”

“Oh my god, Kenny!” Grace chirps. “What a perfect nickname, and from her favorite big cousin!”

Christian’s face twists into a look between displeasure and uncertainty. “Let’s see how Kate feels about nicknames before we start assigning them, huh?”

Grace sighs. “Alright, but I think it’s going to stick. We’re going to go peek in on Kate. Let us know if you need anything.”

Christian leans down so his mother can kiss his cheek, but even though he shakes the hands of both of Kate’s parents and offers them his congratulations, he and Carrick hardly even look at each other. This is supposed to be a joyous day, for the whole family, and this new animosity between them stands in stark contradiction to that. It’s not something on want for Kate on her special day, and I’m about to tell them as much, but Christian pulls against my hand and Grace hurries Carrick down the hall. I can’t even express my distaste to my husband, because he’s in too much of a hurry to get into the nursery. As is the baby in my arms, who is now chanting nonsense at me to push me along.

“She’s so tiny,” Mia says, just after we come through the door.

“Yeah, so don’t break her…” There are obvious nerves in Elliot’s voice and the overprotective way he stares down at his newborn daughter quickly washes away my irritation with Christian and his father. He glances up at us, rolling his eyes at the look on my face, and then nods to Christian.

“You wanna hold your god daughter?”

“Yeah, I do.” Mia sighs and moves to pass Kennedy to Christian, but the moment his hands touch her, Calliope screams.

“No!” She throws her body forward at Christian, nearly causing me to drop her. Without thinking, Elliot snatches Kennedy into his own arms, while Christian turns to keep Calliope from tumbling down onto the hard, linoleum floor.

“Calliope Katherine!” he scolds her, more frightened over her near fall than angry. “Just what in the world do you think you’re doing?”

“Mine, Dada. Mine!” She turns to look at the baby, her fingers digging into Christian’s shirt and her face scrunched up in anger. “No, Kenny!”

I bite down on my bottom lip. “Uh, oh…”

“You see,” Elliot says, chuckling. “I told you she was going to have a hard time not being the only little princess around here anymore.”

Christian sighs. “We’ll try again later. I read in those books last year that it’s a good idea to buy a gift from the baby to a new sibling to try and curtail jealousy issues and help win the older child over. Maybe that’s something we should try with Kennedy?”

I shrug, not too crazy about rewarding possessive behavior by giving her presents, but before we can discuss it further, a nurse comes in and smiles at all of us.

“Mrs. Grey is ready to try breastfeeding.”

“Oh good,” Elliot says. He looks down at Kennedy and smiles. “Let’s go find your mama, huh?”

He reaches over and grips Christian’s arm, then follows the nurse out of the nursery. Mia falls in line behind him, but as Christian adjusts Calliope in his arms and moves to take a step forward, I reach out and stop him.

“We should go.”

“She’s going to have to learn to share, Ana. Might as well start now.”

“No, not because of Calliope. Because of Kate.” He raises an eyebrow at me, so I continue. “This is the first day she has with Kennedy, and there’s a lot of us here. I remember being in her place, watching everyone pass my baby around when all I wanted was to have her for myself. We should give her today. We’ll visit once they’re home.”

“They’re going back to Escala, baby.”

“What?”

He nods. “My parents live three blocks away and Kate’s dad works right down the street. She wants to stay close while they adjust to having a new baby at home. They’re probably not going to move for a few weeks.”

“Oh…”

“We’ll figure it out. You don’t have to go back until you’re ready.”

I nod, then accept the hand he slips into mine as we leave the nursery. There’s a confidence in his voice that tells me he thinks I’ll be ready to go back sooner, rather than later, but I don’t. That place still haunts me. Every time I go to work and see the shadow it casts over the street below. Every time I see a forwarding address on a piece of mail. Every time I close my eyes and smell the flowers Gail kept on the table, mixing with the rusty scent of blood. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to go back, and the thought is like a dark rain cloud hovering over me as we walk through the parking lot and make our way back home.

****

I go into work Monday morning with four inch heels and bright red lipstick. For the first time since I started, I opted not to drive into the city with Christian so we could drop Calliope off at daycare together. I’m already on emotionally shaky ground with Kate leaving the hospital with baby Kennedy this morning, knowing that she’s returning to Escala for at least the remainder of her maternity leave. It feels like an impenetrable barrier between me and my brand new niece, so I didn’t think I’d be able to handle Calliope’s tears while she begged for me not to leave her on top of the guilt I already feel knowing I’m not going to be able to be there for my best friend while she makes the transition into her new role as a mother. Not before the call I’ve scheduled with Carmen for this morning, which feels like it’ll make or break my career.

After Abby and I go through everything else on my calendar for today and I’ve given her specific instructions for the flowers I want waiting inside the apartment at Escala for when Kate gets home, she hurries out of my office and I turn my attention to my email. It’s filled with the usual mass dump of submissions for me to approve, so I take a quick sip of the latte I’d brought in with me this morning and click on the first one. It’s one of Tyler Sullivan’s authors, so I’m perhaps judging the content a little to harshly, but just as I start to think this one might not be completely unreadable, there’s a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I call.

“Mrs. Grey?” Jacki pokes her head inside, blushing like she’s embarrassed to be interrupting me. I give her my warmest smile and motion her inside.

“Good morning. What can I do for you?”

“I just wanted to make sure you saw the sample I sent to you this morning. I… uh, I took your advice and had the IT team restrict my submission inbox to romance novels and women’s fiction and changed my bio on the website. I spent all weekend reading what was sent to me. I’ve never loved my job so much.”

I smile. “Good. I’m really glad to hear that.”

“Yeah. Anyway, I found something I just really, really loved, so I wanted to come in here to, you know, make sure it got a fair shake.”

I scroll through my email until I find one from her. “For Kristen Paige?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I look at it right now.”

“Great.” Her face lights up and I can tell that beneath the professional composure she’s trying to maintain, deep down she’s holding back and a fangirl level of excitement. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Thank you, Jacki.”

The door closes again, and I send a quick email back to Tyler telling him to go ahead and send me the rest of the manuscript for the sample I just read before I click over to Jacki’s submission. I’m more curious about these few chapters than I have been over anything else sent to me so far.  Not just because it’s an opportunity for me to prove my methods are better, but because Jacki said her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. And while the Austen classic is a beautiful love story, I’m not sure how well an age of innocence type romance would fare in this day and age. But Jacki said she loved it, and if she can be used as representation for the audience that makes up 46% of all sales for mass produced paperbacks, I’m inclined to listen to her judgment.

Except, once I dive in, I learn quickly that this isn’t an age of innocence type story at all. There are no white knights or damsels in distress, only an innocent trust fund girl experiencing a real and satisfying sexual awakening with a hardened, bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and the Beast, but with sex. A lot of sex. Hot, passionate, fiery, fantasy sex that makes me want to pull out a notepad and jot some ideas down to take home to Christian for us to try out tonight. All night…

“Ana?”

I jump and look up at the door with all the guilt of a child being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

“Yes, Abby?” I squeak.

Her brow knits together. “You alright?”

“Uh, yeah. Of course I am.”

“You look a little… flustered.”

“Oh. No, I’m fine. It’s just a little hot in here.”

Her eyes move up and dance around the room, like she’s looking for a source of heat that only I can feel. “No…”

“Must just be me then. What can I do for you, Abby?”

“Your call with Ms. Gallagher is in four minutes. I’ve got you all set up in the conference room so the construction noise outside doesn’t bother you.”

“Oh, thank you. That was really thoughtful.”

“Of course. Is there anything else I can get for you, Mrs. Grey… Er, sorry, Ana?”

“I think I’m all set.” I wink and she smiles back at me as she exits the room. There are only a few pages left of the sample I have in my inbox, so I minimize the window to read the rest later and gather everything I need for my meeting. As I walk through the open office towards the conference room, I pause at Jacki’s desk. She looks up when I place a hand on her shoulder and bend down so that I can speak softly enough that only she’ll be able to hear me.

“I absolutely loved it.”

Her face lights up. “Really?”

“Really. You’ve found a winner, Jacki. Get me the rest of the manuscript and we’ll get a contract drawn up for Ms. Paige.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ana,” I say softly, then turn back towards the conference room. After only a few steps though, I stop and face Jacki again. My hand reaches up to cover the bare part of my chest visible between the V-neck collar of my blouse so that she won’t be able to tell that I’m flushed. “Oh, and Jacki… get it to me today, huh?”

Apparently, I don’t fool her at all, because she grins knowingly back at me. “I’ll send it now.”

“Thank you.” I clear my throat, nod at Tyler, and hurry into the meeting room where I can close the door behind me.

Abby, ever thoughtful, has left a post it note on the table with the call in number for our meeting, so I dial and follow the prompts the robotic voice directs me through until it allows me to join the meeting.

“Good afternoon, did someone just join the call?” an unknown male voice answers.

“Uh, yes. This is Anastasia Grey, for Carmen Gallagher.”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey. My name is Hunter Leary, I’m Ms. Gallagher’s assistant. She’s just getting off another call. She’ll join momentarily.”

“Oh, great.” I reach out and mute the audio on my phone, and then start flipping through what I’ve prepared for this meeting. I don’t have much beyond numbers for similar novels published within the last five years, thanks to Scott after he killed my focus group, so I know that this is going to come down to me. How convincing I can be, and how much she really trusts me to do the job she hired me to do.

The phone beeps.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Carmen says. “Anastasia are you on the line?”

“Yes, Ms. Gallagher.”

“Great. Scott, what about you?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

My back stiffens and an acrid tastes creeps into my mouth. Shit, I hadn’t considered that Scott would be included in this call.

“Well, let’s jump into it then. What’s going on?”

“Uh…” I stutter, feeling like I’ve lost my bearings. “I, um, wanted to speak to you about the summer release we’re gearing up for.”

“What about it?”

I open my mouth to answer, but before I can get any words out, Scott cuts me off. “Anastasia and I are having a fundamental disagreement over which title we should be moving forward with. She’s found something more suited to her personal tastes and she wants to push it ahead of the release we’ve been waiting on all year.”

“Which is?”

Scott answers again. “Walter Daves’ new book. It’s a psychological thriller, mystery. Great stuff. He’s Seattle’s current best seller.”

“So, what’s the problem? It seems to me if our best selling author sent us a manuscript, we publish it.”

“Exactly my point.”

“With all due respect,” I interject. “I’ve read the manuscript and I don’t think it’s ready for publication.”

“Nothing is ready for publication at this stage,” Scott argues. “It’s why we have editors.”

“Right. But there’s a vast difference in quality of raw material here. I’ve got a manuscript for a new, local author and it’s practically ready to hit the shelves. The story is better, the writing is better, and I really believe it’s going to appeal towards a much wider demographic. It’s the better option.”

“You’re just glazing over a key word here, Anastasia,” Scott says, the irritation in his voice more noticeable now.  “New author. She has no established fan base, no name recognition, nothing. No one is going to buy her book.”

“I didn’t have any of that either, and I’m over a million copies sold.”

“Oh, please. You had name recognition. Your name has been all over every gossip rag and the internet since you started screwing Christian Grey.”

Excuse me?”

“Alright, alright, alright,” Carmen interrupts, and I can tell just by her voice that her patience is wearing thin. “Scott, you’re out of line.”

“I’m sorry, that was crass. But the facts are the facts. She had just as much name recognition as any other socialite, probably more after that whole kidnapping thing that was all over the news. This author she’s trying to push has nothing. Not even on social media. We invest in this title, we may as well close up shop.”

“And I disagree,” I reply through clenched teeth, doing everything in my power to ignore the reminder of what happened last March and how much that actually did play a role in my book deal with HarperCollins. “Daves may give us big pre-order and release day numbers, but that’ll fizzle out quickly once the critics get ahold of it. Hailey Lewis’ novel is a long term investment that is going to ensure the success of this publishing house for years to come.”

Carmen sighs. “Look, I hired the two of you to be my experts, but your advice means next to nothing if you’re contradicting each other. I need you both to work as a team.”

“I agree,” Scott says. “And I’m only sticking to the course we set at the beginning of the fiscal year. Daves is our premier release and deviating from that plan is suicide.”

“And I’m just doing what I was hired to do,” I argue. “I know Daves feels safe, but he’s not. And pushing this title into publication now is going to damage our bottom line and rest of his career.”

“When do we need to make a decision in order to meet our deadlines?” Carmen asks.

Scott snorts. “Last week.”

“Then you have ‘til Wednesday morning. I want you two to find some common ground, pick a title, and move forward. Scott, you’ll let me know before I fly out Wednesday afternoon.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, then I’ll leave you to it. Hunter, my office in fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, Ms. Gallagher.”

There’s a click, and she’s gone. I let my head fall into my hands. “So what are we going to do, Scott?”

“I’m going to tell her we’re moving forward with Daves.”

“I’m not on board with that. Really, I can feel in my gut that going with Daves is a mistake. I know you don’t believe me, but this is a Seattle release, not New York. You have to trust me to run this branch.”

“And I will, once you’ve proven that you can be trusted. Right now, I see no reason to trust you. Right now, I see you arguing with me, with our staff, and going behind my back to Carmen when you don’t get your way. I’ve been in this business for twelve years, I know what I’m doing. I’m lofting you a softball here, honey. Hit it out of the park and we’ll talk about signing new authors.”

“Okay, don’t call me honey. I have a degree from Harvard, I’ve at least earned my own name.”

He sighs. “Fine, you know what? I’ll make you a deal. Convince me that this new title is all you’re building it up to be in the next twenty-four hours and I’ll tell Carmen we’ve decided on Lewis. Otherwise, we’re going with Daves.”

“Fine,” I reply, because I know it’s the best offer I’m going to get with Carmen’s Wednesday deadline. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day, Ana.”

“You too, Scott.” We both say the other’s name with contempt, and hang up the phone without real salutation. I slump back in my chair, feeling the enormous weight of the task in front of me. It’s clear to me why Hailey’s novel is the better choice, I just need to find a way to make Scott see reason. But I’m not going to have any breakthroughs on that front sitting here stewing over it. I need to clear my head.

I get up from the table and leave the conference room, making sure I don’t look as though I’m avoiding eye contact with any of the probing gazes that look up to me. It’s bad enough having to fight Scott to be able to do my job. I don’t need my subordinates to see me crack under pressure.

“Abby, I’m going to take a walk,” I say, approaching reception. She looks up at me and smiles.

“Will I need to push your 01:30?”

“No, I’ll be back soon. Just forward any calls to voicemail, unless it’s family. I want to know once Kate gets home from the hospital.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Woods?” My CPO looks up, then gets out of his seat and follows me through the door. I feel full of anxious energy as we make our way down the elevator, but there’s something about being in the open air that always gives me clarity. It’s one of the reasons I still crave my morning run.

“Where to, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks.

“Just a few blocks. Hang back, okay? I need some space to think.”

“No problem. Just stay in my line of sight. Mr. Grey’s orders.”

I give him a tight smile and nod, then start my way up the sidewalk. My mind races through dozens of possibilities of what I can do, each less likely to be successful than the last. But every time I dismiss an idea, I see Hailey’s face. I hear her voice and how excited she was when I told her she was going to be published. This isn’t just about money, or about my career, this is about a promise I made to a young, talented author. She deserves to be published. She deserves all of the accolades this novel is going to bring to her, and I want to help her get there. It’s the reason I got back into the business, and if I fail her now, I fail myself. I fail everyone. I fail my family for all the hours I’ve spent away from home, I fail the readers who will never get a chance to experience this story, and I fail the next generation of writers that Hailey could inspire. The way I inspired her.

I stop walking and lean against the front façade of a Starbucks. The stone is cold and wet on my exposed arms, but I push past the discomfort and let the worry and stress fall out of my mind.

Think, Anastasia. Think.

But my thoughts are disrupted by a loud boom and the ground shaking beneath my feet. My eyes snap open and I look wildly around, unsure of which direction the sound came from, until I begin to hear screams of horror. I turn and look at the source of the noise, and my gaze slowly creeps up the side of the tall glass building I recognize in an instant.

“No!”

“Mrs. Grey!” Woods calls after me, but I’ve already taken off. The heels I wore this morning to make me feel more confident going into my meeting with Carmen slow me down, so I kick them off and leave them on the sidewalk behind me.

A crowd has formed around the corner from GEH, making it difficult for me to shove my way through. Several people stand there staring, their hands covering their mouths, their faces pale as freshly poured milk. I force my way to the front just as the police cruisers make it onto the scene, and my heart thuds in my chest. The sidewalks around the building are covered in shards and pebbles of glass from the broken windows all around the first floor. Men and women in expensive looking suits pour out of the building, their clothes singed and darkened with dust.

“What happened?” a voice asks behind me.

“I don’t know,” someone else replies. “There was some kind of explosion at the GEH building…”

“Oh my god, it’s terrorists!”

I gasp and push forward again, paying little mind to the glass covered pavement even though I’m barefoot. I’m careful to inspect the faces of each person I see come out of the building, looking for one I recognize, but before I get too close, a hand closes around my arm and pulls me back.

“Miss, I’m going to need you to stay back. It isn’t safe.” It’s a police officer, and instantly, my guard is up. I yank my arm out of his hold.

“My name is Anastasia Grey, this is my husband’s building.”

“That’s nice, lady. But I’m still going to need you to get back.”

“Well, do you know what happened?

“All we know is that there was an explosion on the basement level. Now, step back, ma’am.”

Basement level? That’s what? The parking garage and… the R&D lab. I feel a pain in my chest as I think about Welch and Barney, who I’ve worked closely with several times, but in the same thought, I feel relief. Calliope is on the 7th floor, far away from R&D, and Christian is way up on 30.

“Are you evacuating the whole building?” I ask the officer. He glares down at me.

“Yes, Now, get back!”

“Mrs. Grey.” I turn and see Woods behind me, my shoes in hand. He guides me back to the front of the crowd and I slip my heels back on as I continue watching the people being led out of the building by men in uniform.

The process is slow, and the people come in waves. I know once they get to the 4th floor, because that’s where Grey Publishing is located and I recognize Elizabeth when she emerges from the building. No one in that department looks injured or even scorched the way the initial wave did, so I breathe a little easier. There’s still three floors left to evacuate before they’ll get to Calliope and if the people on four are safe, she should be too.

“Have you seen anyone from R&D?” I ask Woods when the 5th floor wave begins to emerge. He glances through the crowd of people and shakes his head.

“No, ma’am. But if there was an explosion, it might take more to get to them. It could have compromised the integrity of the building and they’re not going to want to shift anything until they’ve evacuated everyone they can.”

I’m hit with another wave of fear. “You think the building could collapse?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I just know they’re going to want to get everyone out before they even survey the damage.”

“Jesus Christ.” Where’s Elliot when you need him?

Several more emergency vehicles pull into the blocked off road between us and the building all at once. More police cruisers, fire trucks, and at least a dozen ambulances. The sight of them makes the knot of dread in my stomach pull tighter. An ambulance means someone has been injured. A fleet of them means that a lot of people were. The one day I didn’t take Calliope to daycare. The one fucking day…  I focus my eyes on the doors, waiting in agony for a face I know.

“Mrs. Grey,” Woods says, urgently. “There’s Mackenzie.”

I turn to the side door, and see a line of people and children coming towards us. Kensie has Calliope in her arms, trying to soothe her as she wails at the top of her lungs, and I feel my heart thud to a stop in my chest.

“Calliope!” The officer holding the line at the front of the crowd has to once again hold me back to keep me from running to her, but the nanny hears my cry and makes a beeline towards us.

“She’s fine,” Kensie says the moment she’s in earshot. “Just scared. It was really loud.”

“Oh, baby…” I take her into my arms and look her over, despite Kensie’s reassurances. My hands brush over every inch of her skin, looking for cuts or bruises, but there’s nothing. She’s perfect. “Shhh, Calliope. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

“Mama. Mamamama…”

“Shhh.” I hug her tightly against me, rocking her back and forth as my eyes turn back to the doors. Now that I know my child is safe, every thought I have shifts to Christian and the twenty three floors that have to be evacuated before emergency crews make it to the executive suite. Normally, I’d think they would try to get the high ranking executives out first, but I also know, if he’s able to, Christian would have issued instructions for emergency crews to get to his employees first. Like a good captain, he’ll be the last to disembark his sinking ship, and that’s what has me so terrified. I glance at the broken windows again, and the solid steel that surrounds them, looking for any sign of weakness.

Please. Please be okay…

It takes over an hour, and the wait is torture. I try calling his cell ten different times, but each time it goes straight to voicemail and that sends a fresh wave of panic through me. Woods tries to reassure me by reminding me that he may have left his phone behind in his haste to get out of the office, or that he’s on the phone with emergency services so he can’t pick up.

None of that makes me feel better.

Finally, I see Ros’ fiery red hair emerge from the building. She turns and waves the rest of the staff through the doors: her assistant, then Andrea, Olivia, a few interns whose faces I recognize but whose names I never learned, and… that’s it. Christian isn’t with them.

“Ros!” I scream. She turns to look at me, her eyes glassy with impending tears, and moves toward me.

“Ana.”

“Where is he? Why isn’t he with you?”

“He wasn’t in his office. He was in a meeting.”

“Oh, thank god. Where?”

She swallows. “He was in the R&D lab.”

 

Chapter 13

5235d40cceb3456b8b28ab9e61f737d6-rnr12i78sfo-krista-mangulsone

Attention passengers, we’re making our final descent into Seattle. Please make sure your trays are in the upright and locked position, and please remain seated with your seat belt fastened for the remainder of the flight.

 

I look up from the report in my lap and feel a pressure in my chest I hadn’t realized was there release. Christian kissed me goodbye at the airport less than 48 hours ago, but every second I’ve been away from him and Calliope has felt like a day all on its own. He’d worried when I took this job that travelling was going to be hard for me, but having Luke and Calliope with me in Cambridge had given me an overinflated sense of confidence. This weekend has left me exhausted. Not just from the long night at Angela Rowe’s signing celebration, but from the nightmares that made sleeping through the few hours I had available to me impossible.

The plane dips below the clouds, bringing the city and everything that surrounds it into view. I slip my work back into my carry on and stare longingly at the sapphire colored water that I know lies right at the end of my yard. The view conjures memories of Christian and Calliope feeding ducks together, and it makes me smile.

“Glad to be home, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks from the seat next to me.

“Very,” I reply. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“It’s my pleasure, Ma’am.”

Twenty minutes later, we’re on the ground and I hurry Woods along as we deboard the plane and make for the exit. It’s crowded, so getting out of the terminal means weaving through tightly packed groups of tourists and anxious looking businessmen. It slows me down and makes my heart pound with impatient excitement.

When we come through the final doors at the security barrier, I immediately start looking around for Christian, hoping he’ll have Calliope with him. But when I see a face I recognize, it isn’t my husband’s, and my chest deflates with disappointment.

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey,” Taylor greets me. “Woods. How was your flight?”

“Fine, thank you.” I smile in case he picked up on my less than enthused reaction to seeing him there waiting for me, and he takes the bag slung over my shoulder while motioning for both me and my CPO to follow him towards the exit for the parking structure. “Where’s Christian?”

“Home, I’m afraid. He told me he wanted to spend the morning with your daughter before he has to do some work this afternoon.”

“Oh.” My face falls. After losing what little free time we have together to this book party, I was hoping that he’d want to spend the afternoon together. I know how busy he is right now. He told me before they launched this project that it was going to take up a significant amount of his time. But I was home all the time then. Now, time seems so much more precious. I wonder if whatever he’s got scheduled could be pushed to Monday? Would I dare ask? I know how important this is to him…

Once we get to the car, Taylor holds open the door to the backseat for me, then helps Woods load the luggage into the trunk. The traffic is light going through Seattle, so I don’t expect it will take us long to get home, and I use the time I do have on the commute to check the emails I’ve missed since I had to turn my phone off for my flight out of San Francisco. Mostly, it’s just follow up from the party from last night, but sandwiched in between the congratulations and invoices from the different vendors I’d hired, there’s an email from Abby.

 

From: Abigail Kyle

Subject: Focus Group

Date: April 1st 2012  09:18 AM

To: Anastasia Grey

Good Morning, Ana!

I just got an email from the people who operate the meeting space where I scheduled your focus group for tomorrow, and they said payment has been denied. I called Mary in accounting and she said corporate didn’t approve it. What do you want me to do?

-Abby

Abigail Kyle

Assistant to Anastasia Grey, Greenwich Small Press

 

My teeth clench together. Of course it wasn’t approved.

My fingers itch to type back that she can just put it on my credit card, but there’s no use in continuing to fight this fight if everything I do is just going to fall on deaf ears. I should just stop and call Carmen, plead my case now before we get any further with The Black Rose and there’s no turning back. But as I click out of my email and start scrolling through my contacts for her number, I get a picture of Christian and what would happen if a department head called his cell phone directly to argue about something he already didn’t approve when he was at home with Calliope and me. They wouldn’t have a job Monday.

Tomorrow then. I’ll call tomorrow and have a calm, rational discussion with Carmen about why we should go with Phoenix. She hired me. That means she must trust my judgment.

The thought’s enough to make me put my phone away, but it’s not enough to quell the irritation boiling inside of me. It shouldn’t be this hard for me to push something through. I was hired to right the ship, but every time I try to set a course Scott drops an anchor. He was the one who pursued me, so I can’t understand why he’s playing these… power struggle games with me.

That’s it, I guess. Power. He wanted me to come on board because he knew I was the best fit, but he’s not ready to let go of the power he’d held when he was the only one in charge. For a few months, Greenwich was entirely his. Now I’m here, and two weeks in I’m already challenging his vision. That’s not something I’m going to apologize for. At the end of the day, my name is going to be on this release, not his, and I’m not going to risk my reputation for his ego. But, it is something I can be cognizant of moving forward. I grew up playing chess with my father, and this is no different. Just moves and countermoves. And while Scott may have experience on his side, I have experience dealing with men who desire power. I might be outgunned at the moment, but I’m not certainly out matched.

The car stops and Taylor rolls down his window to punch the code into the box that opens the gate. We sit there, idling, until the iron bars that protect my home groan open and he can pull into the driveway.

“Welcome home, Ana.”

I look up, meet Taylor’s twinkling eyes in the rear-view mirror, and smile. “Thank you, Taylor. It’s good to be home.”

 

I enter the house through the garage, which was a mistake because it takes me longer to get to the living room than it would have had I asked Taylor to drop me off at the front door. My entire body is itching to get Calliope back into my arms. So, the second I hear the sounds of the foreign language learning videos that Christian insists the baby watch every day, I drop any pretense of patience and bolt to her.

“There she is!” I squeal when I come around the corner and see her sitting on her blanket in the middle of the room, staring up at the cartoons on the TV with complete rapture. She turns her head slowly when she looks over at me, but she doesn’t scream with joy or even smile. Her eyes grow wide with surprise and her mouth rounds out to a perfect little o.

“Mama?”

“Hey, Calli-lily!” I scoop her up, and she reaches out for my hair. Her fingers twist and tug on the ends, almost as though she’s trying to decide whether or not I’m real. Once she’s certain, her eyes meet mine again.

“Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, baby!” I hug her, letting her scent fill my head and wash away days worth of yearning. She clings to me, curling her fingers tightly into my dress while repeating, ‘mama’, over and over again. Kensie is on the couch, smiling up at us, so I turn to her.

“How was your weekend?”

“Great. Easy, actually. Calliope’s an angel and Mr. Grey has been very hands on with her the entire time you’ve been away.” She smiles, like she’s sharing a secret that she shouldn’t. “He slept in the rocking chair in her nursery last night. I woke up in the middle of the night, so I thought I’d check on her, and there he was, fast asleep. If I wasn’t afraid of waking him, I’d have sent you a picture.

“Awh.” My lips pout together and I wrap my arms tighter around my baby and rock her gently back and forth. She yawns and nestles into me, curling up like she wants to fall asleep.

“She was up pretty early, so I think she’s probably ready for a nap,” Kensie says. “We were just finishing up some French lessons and then I was going to put her down.”

“I’ll do it,” I tell her. “Where’s my husband?”

“In his office, I think? He got a call from his assistant over breakfast and I overheard him say something about being booked this afternoon and putting a do not disturb on his email. He disappeared not long after Taylor left to get you.”

I sigh. “Alright, I’ll find him. In the meantime, let’s get you down for a nap, huh?” I look at Calliope and kiss her forehead, speaking with my lips still pressed to her skin. “What do you say, Munchkin?”

“No. Mama.”

I laugh, then wink at Kensie and carry Calliope off to her nursery. She doesn’t want me to let her go, so before I lie her down in her crib I pick a book from the shelf, and sit and read with her in the rocking chair. She fights her eyelids as long as she can, using her fingers in my hair as a distraction to keep her tethered to consciousness. But it’s not long before her eyelashes flutter and she dozes off in my arms.

After lying her down in the crib and taking just a few minutes to stare down at her perfect little face, I venture out in search of my husband. But he isn’t in his office like I expected him to be. He’s not in the gym, or pacing with his phone on the veranda, so I head back up the stairs to check our bedroom.

“Christian?” I call, stepping inside and frowning when I come up empty handed again. The bathroom door is ajar, so I cross the room to check if he’s maybe taking a shower, but stop when I hear the bedroom door close behind me and then several soft footsteps across the carpet. I feel him before he touches me. His warm, masculine scent swirls around me, drawing me to him, heightening every other sense. I shiver when his hands sweep up my bare arms and his face moves into the curve between my neck and shoulder. The gentle kiss of his lips on the sensitive spot below my ear sends a wave of electricity through me, and, instantly, I’m his.

“Welcome home,” he whispers. The deep, need ladened timber reverberating from his chest makes my entire body hum with want. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

His fingers drag up the sides of my arms, all the way up over my shoulders to the zipper at the back of my dress, and the barely there scrape of his neatly trimmed fingernails leaves goose bumps in my skin. As he glides the zipper down my back, his lips move from my neck to kiss every inch of skin he exposes.

“I—I thought you were working this afternoon?”

“Oh, believe me, I plan on doing plenty of work. Right here.” His tongue caresses the skin on my back and I tremble.

“Christian.” My voice comes out in a whisper and desire drips from my lips like warm honey. When the zipper reaches its terminus, his hands slide into my open dress, palms caressing my back as he moves them up my body, widening the gap in the fabric, until the sleeves slip from my shoulders and my entire dress pools around my feet.

“Bed,” he whispers.

I turn in his arms to face him and his mouth comes crashing down on mine. His tongue parts my lips. My fingers curl into his hair. The kiss is soft and deep, slow, and yet filled with a desperate kind of need that has me internally screaming for him push me back onto our bed, rip away my panties, and take me until I’m adequately claimed once again.

He doesn’t though. There is no fiery urgency in the way his hands explore my body or how his tongue tangles with mine. Without his hands ever leaving my skin, he reaches down past my behind to the insides of my thighs and lifts me so that my legs curl around his waist. My hold tightens around his upper body as he carries me across our bedroom, forcing him to come with me once he deposits me onto the bed.

His body consumes me. I’m pinned beneath him at every limb, his weight too much for me to move. But I don’t struggle. I don’t want to be free of his touch.

Reaching over his shoulders, he untangles my arms from around his neck and pins them both down into the mattress at either side of my head, though not to restrain me. With the same gentility he used to touch me at the door, his hands move over my forearms, all the way up, until his fingers can entangle with mine. It’s a simple gesture, intimate but innocent, and it sends a wave of welcome heat down my body, between my legs.

I tilt my hips up, grinding my pelvic bone into his erection in a desperate attempt for friction. He smiles against my lips and presses into me, matching my enthusiasm. “Always so impatient,” he says.

“I need you.”

“Mmm, are you wet?”

“Yes.”

He releases my hand and reaches down my body. My panties are such an insignificant barrier to him, they might as well not be there at all. When his finger slips through my arousal, he groans into my mouth. “So wet…”

I gasp and cling tighter to him, begging for more through my kiss rather than my words, and he obliges. Two long fingers slide into me while his thumb circles my clitoris. The heat intensifies and my eyes roll back. When my mouth drops open in a silent gasp of pleasure, his teeth tug at my bottom lip.

“I have every intention of making love to you, Anastasia,” he says. “But just because I don’t expect you to submit to me doesn’t mean the rules have changed.”

“What rules?”

“You know which rules.” He pushes his fingers as deep inside of me as he can reach, curling them around to stroke the place that has my toes digging into the sheets. “Say it.”

“I-I…” I bite down on my lip and force myself to swallow my panting breaths so I can get the words out. “I only come for your mouth or your cock.”

“And I intend for you to do both.”

I whimper and clench around his fingers, desperate to stave off the orgasm he seems just as eager to coax out of me. I pant his name, claw at his arms, and, mercifully, just as I’m about to lose the battle and fall over the ledge, his hand disappears. The emptiness left behind is both a relief and unbelievably torturous. But he takes pity on me.

With one last kiss against my lips, he moves down my body. While he pauses to suckle softly on each of my nipples, I reach down, dig my fingers into his shirt, and pull it up over his head. He lifts himself enough for the fabric to be removed, then drags the tip of his tongue through my cleavage, down the middle of my stomach, over my hip bone, and across my thigh. I clench again, electrified by only his eyes and the focus with which he stares at his prize between my legs. I want to thread my fingers through his hair, grip at the roots until his mouth falls open with pain and pleasure, and then guide him into me. But I resist. I let him stare. I let him plan. And after a few agonizing seconds of waiting, I’m rewarded with his tongue.

“Oh, fuck. Christian!” Once his name crosses my lips, he begins to suck softly on my clitoris then drags the resulting inundation of my arousal up and round that sensitive bundle of nerves with the flat of his tongue. A pattern starts to develop, three flicks, swirl, long lick. Flick. Swirl. Lick. Flick. Swirl. Lick. My back arches off the bed, my mouth drops open, my eyes close. The wick to my release has been lit, and when he begins to suck again, I fill his mouth with fireworks.

“Christian!”

He growls and uses his lips and tongue to work me through my orgasm, dragging it out, drowning me in it until I’m reduced to nothing but a quaking, breathless mess. When I come down and the world comes into focus again, he leaves a final kiss against me and then drags himself up my body again. The tip of his erection plays against my still quaking opening.

“I could watch you come all day, Anastasia.”

“I’m inclined to let you.”

He flashes me that mischievous smile I always feel in the deepest, most secret parts of me. “Good.”

In one smooth motion, he thrusts inside of me and takes my resulting cry of pleasure into his mouth. His tongue dances with mine in synchrony with his movements inside of me, slow and controlled, but filled with love and promise. I hook my leg around his hips, desperate to be closer to him despite the fact that his thrusts push him as deep inside of me as humanly possible. The blunt end of him tests my boundaries while his hands cradle my face with a gentility that I wouldn’t normally expect from him during sex. It’s a silent but powerful gesture. He missed me. He’s glad I’m home. And, he loves me.

“Oh, Ana…” he groans. The sound of my name reverberates against my lips until he kisses me again, and I can’t tell which gives me more pleasure. The reverence in his voice is religious in it’s devotion, yet it’s a pale imitation of the depth of feeling I have for him. For this connection. For the piece of himself he’s given me, and only me. I pull away from the kiss so I can look into his eyes, and when I do his face twists with an intense emotion I can’t read.

“Give me your hand,” he says. I do, and he brings each of my fingertips to his lips before pulling my hand down between my legs. At first, I think he wants me to touch myself. But he lays my hand flat over my pubic bone, my index and middle fingers bookends to the connection between our bodies. “Feel me. Feel the way we move together.”

“Ah…” Even the sharp intake of breath I take shakes. It’s too much to contain. The pleasure, his adoration, the depth of feeling his love making brings out of me. I’m overwhelmed, and the burden of those feelings coil inside of me, tighter and tighter, until everything disintegrates.

My orgasm doesn’t hit me with the force of a supernova the way the first one did. It’s more like a breath of wind spreading flames across the dry foliage of the forest floor. The hot flames of pleasure creep slowly through my entire body, but with enough potency to burn me down to the bone. I feel him everywhere. From the tips of my fingers to the ends of my toes, I writhe with pleasure so intense I’m baffled by my own body’s ability to contain it.

“Oh, fuck!” Christian grunts through clenched teeth. His eyes close, and his expression twists with determination as he struggles to keep his own release at bay long enough to see me through the highest peak of mine. One long sustained note escapes my chest, raising higher and higher in pitch until it’s silent and then… “Ana!”

He pushes as deep into me as he can, then stills. His erection is so swollen that I can feel him pulse with every drip he releases inside of me. I welcome it. I want it. In that moment, lost in the heat of orgasm, I reject every part of my existence that doesn’t exist solely for his pleasure.

Our breathing is synchronized as we come down, and we’re both covered in a thin sheen of sweat. Every part of my body is overcome with a feeling of relaxation so deep, I can’t move. He kisses me deeply, then rolls over and collapses on the bed at my side, his chest heaving with every breath he takes. We lay there in silence for what is probably only a minute or so, though it feels much longer, and then he turns to look at me.

“You’re incredible, you know that?”

I let my head loll to the side and blink at him. “I’m sorry, who are you?” It takes half a second, but his face breaks into a smile and we both laugh until, somehow, we’re kissing again. He leans up on his arms and brushes the backs of his fingers over my cheeks while our lips play softly against each other. When we part, he smiles and looks down at me with the same love I felt a few minutes ago swimming in his eyes.

“How was your trip?”

“It was fine.”

His brow furrows. “Fine? You hosted a party that the San Francisco Chronicle was raving about this morning. It had to have been better than fine.”

I want to roll my eyes. Of course he’s already read all the press. “No, the party was good. There’s a lot of enthusiasm surrounding this release right now and I’m excited to see how that translates to sales.”

“But?”

“Corporate killed my focus group, and I think Scott is probably behind it.”

Christian snorts. “How fragile does a man’s ego have to be to be so threatened by the success of a colleague at an entirely separate branch all the way across the country?”

“I think it’s more about control. He ran GSP unchecked for months, and now here I am, refusing to just give in to what he wants on the first big release I’ve been given.” I sigh. “Anyway, I’m going to call Carmen on Monday and try to talk her over to my side. You know her, right?”

He shrugs, and I turn so that I’m facing him better.

“What do I need to do to convince her?”

“Oh, no. You’re the competition now. Any advice I give you would be in direct opposition to the interests of my own publishing company. You’re on your own, Mrs. Grey.”

“Shouldn’t there be some kind of loophole where you ignore the whole competition thing and give me advice because I’m your wife and you love me and you want me to succeed?”

He smiles. “I do love you. And I’d give you all the advice you could handle if you wanted to leave and come work for me.”

“I can’t come work for you. I signed a non-compete.”

“Oh, please. I’ll put my lawyers up against Carmen Gallagher’s any day. You want to come to GP, just say the word and it’s yours.”

“No, thank you.”

“Then my lips are sealed.”

“Oh really?” I lean up and kiss him again, coaxing his lips apart with my tongue so I can deepen the kiss. He moans and lovingly runs his fingers through my hair again. When we part, I place one last, sweet peck against his lips for good measure. “How about now?”

“Mmm… no dice.”

“Christian!”

He laughs, but turns away from me to pick up his phone, vibrating on the floor next to the bed. I only just get a glance of Kate’s name displayed across the screen before he answers.

“Kate?” He pauses, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. I can only judge the tone of the call by his face, and his expression goes from curious to worry in a split second. “Yeah, she just got home. What’s wrong?”

“Wrong?” I breathe, but he holds a hand up to silence me so that he can hear what she’s saying.

“Where’s Elliot? Fuck. Okay, don’t move. We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He hangs up the phone and leaps out of bed, picking up his clothes and throwing them on as he moves quickly for our bedroom door.

“What’s going on?” I ask, panic rising in my chest.

“Kate’s in labor, and Elliot’s on a job site in Tacoma. We need to pick her up and take her to the hospital.”

“Labor? Oh my god, she’s having her baby!” My smile widens with each word, and despite his hurry, he smiles back at me.

“Yeah. Now get dressed. I’ll get Calliope and meet you at the car.”

I nod quickly and scurry out of bed. The dress I wore on the plane this morning is all business and only looks good with a sky high pair of heels, not something I want wear sitting in a waiting room all day, so I go to the closet, find one of Christian’s t-shirts and a pair of leggings. My hair is a dead give away that I’ve just been fucked within an inch of my life, but there isn’t any time to do anything about it. I sweep it up in a messy bun on top of my head, spritz myself with perfume to mask the smell of Christian and sex, and bolt to the door.

He’s already in the garage by the time I get downstairs, buckling Calliope into her car seat while dismissing Kensie until Monday. Taylor is in the driver’s seat, the engine of the SUV purring gently, so I give our nanny a grateful smile and jump into the backseat.

“Where to, Mr. Grey?” Taylor asks.

“Escala, and hurry.”

Taylor nods and begins to back out of the garage, and I feel like someone just dropped a 100 lb weight in my lap. I hadn’t considered where Kate was, only that I needed to get to her as quickly as possible. Her movers are scheduled for 8 AM tomorrow morning, of course she goes into labor today.

“You alright?” Christian asks, reaching over to grasp my hand. I turn and stare back at him, forcing the fear clutching my windpipe down so that my voice won’t betray me.

“Of course I am. Kate’s having her baby today.”

He gives me a small but warm smile, then reaches into the car seat and brushes his hand lovingly through Calliope’s curls, and once again, I get away with it.

Dread builds inside me the entire drive into downtown, like a rock that’s fallen into the pit of my stomach. I try to alleviate my anxiety by telling myself this drive is no different than the commute I take into work every morning. But any comfort I’m able to find in the lie comes and goes as quickly as it takes for us to pass the GSP building. Only two blocks, and then Taylor signals for the drive to the parking garage below Escala.

For some reason, the small box that contains the sensor for the initial gate is still in the dash of the SUV, so Taylor doesn’t stop to punch in a code before the gate swings open. I have no moment to brace myself before we descend into the dark garage, and the moment the muted light streaming in through the window at my side is obstructed, I feel a wave of cold. There’s a pillar not far from the lane that leads us to the elevator, is that where Kommer was hiding, waiting for us to return that night? Is this where Luke was first pulled out of this very car at gunpoint? My mind is filled with these kinds of questions and when we stop, and I reach for the handle on the door, I say a silent prayer that Christian doesn’t notice my fingers shaking.

“You don’t have to come up,” he says. “You can wait here with Calliope.”

I swallow, both my mind and heart racing. Kate is upstairs, scared and alone. I should go to her. I need to go to her. But the very sight of the elevator, the thought of punching in the code to the penthouse, the image of watching each number tick higher as we rise up to the place where it happened… it all has me frozen, unable to move.

I look back at Christian and nod. “Hurry.”

“I will.” He opens the door and disappears from the safe confines of our car. I watch every step he takes to the elevator and then hold my breath as he steps inside, fighting every instinct that tells me to call him back. Once the doors close and he’s out of my sight, I force my mind to go blank, place my hand over my daughter in her car seat, and focus on Taylor. The piece that was missing last time.

“Three minutes, Mrs. Grey,” he says, making eye contact with me in the rear view mirror. “That’s as long as it takes.”

I nod, let my head fall back against the headrest, and close my eyes.

One. Two. Three. Four…

I get all the way to one hundred eighty-nine when the faint ding of the elevator arriving catches my attention. My eyes snap open and I look up at a scene that I had imagined a hundred times last year, only with myself in the place currently being occupied by my best friend. Christian has a small, pink gym bag slung over his shoulder, one arm around Kate’s waist, and one hand clutched in hers so that she has something to hold and steady herself. Her face is contorted with pain and worry. Her lips are pursed with the release of a long breath, and her free arm carefully cradles her baby bump. They stop as Kate half doubles over with the pain of a contraction, and while I can’t hear the words, I can see Christian lean down and say something to her that makes her nod and encourages her to continue on to the car. It should make me happy to see him supporting her the way he is, it does make me happy. But watching them makes me think of Calliope’s birth, the experience I missed because of my abruption, and I view him leading Kate towards me through the green tinge of envy.

Stop it, Ana.

When they’re only a few feet away, I get out of the car and take Kate’s hands. She’s panting, and I can see in her eyes that she’s scared. Nodding for Christian to put her bag in the back while I lead her into the backseat, I put an arm around her and try to sooth her with my voice as best as possible.

“Easy, Katie. We’ve got you. We’re going to the hospital now.”

“E-Elliot,” she pants. “Sh-she can’t be born before Elliot gets here.”

“I’ll call him,” Christian says. “Find out where he is.” Kate nods, but none of the uneasiness leaves her eyes. I slide into the back seat next to her, and take her hand.

“He’s coming, Kate. He’s going to make it. Just breathe with me.”

Thankfully, Kate acted as my partner in Christian’s absence through countless Lamaze classes the year before, so it isn’t weird coaching her to breath through the entire drive to Northwest Hospital. She clutches my hand so tightly that I can’t feel most of it after a few minutes, and the very tips of my fingers turn deep red, almost purple, in color. But I can tell how much it helps her, knowing I’m there, so I let her squeeze me as much as she needs to for the entirety of the ride.

“We’re here,” I encourage her once the SUV stops in front of the sliding glass doors at the Emergency Room entrance. Christian jumps out of the front passenger seat and opens our door, somehow managing to get her bag from the trunk and still make it back to us in time to hold most of her weight as she carefully steps out onto the asphalt. A man in light blue scrubs rushes towards us, pushing a wheelchair in front of him, and I once again let her clutch my hand while Christian helps lower her down into it.

“Where is he now?” she asks, looking at Christian with desperate eyes.

“He just texted me. There’s an accident on I-5, but he’s gotten around to 167 at Federal Way. He’s coming, Kate. He’ll make it.”

“But if he…” she shakes her head, deciding against whatever it was she was going to say, and looks up at me. “Don’t leave me, Ana.”

“I won’t, Kate. I’m right here.”

She nods again, furiously, like she’s trying to convince herself of something, and the nurse pushes her forward into the ER. They take us straight up to the maternity floor and while Kate and I are shown back to the private birthing suite they booked months ago, Christian is handed a clipboard to fill out her information and tasked with sitting with Calliope in the waiting room and calling both her and Elliot’s parents.

“Breathe, Katie,” I say, looking up at the clock on the wall and trying to calculate how much time is left until I think Elliot is going to arrive. She screams again, through another powerful contraction, and I think I see her involuntarily pushing. Shit… should she be? “You’re doing great, Kate. Keep breathing.” I drop her hand and run to the door, scream for the nurse, and return to her side until, finally, someone comes to examine her.

“Drugs!” she cries the moment the doctor comes into the room. “I want the drugs, give me the drugs.”

“We’ll see what we can do, Mrs. Grey. Let me just get a look here and see where we’re at.” I stand to the side, keeping her fingers interlaced with mine, as he helps her get her leg into the stirrups and dives between her legs. She screams again, pushes again, and the doctor sits up straight. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey, it looks like we’re past the point of an epidural. You’re fully dilated, this baby is coming.”

“What?” she pants. “I-I’ve only been in labor for a little over an ho—OWE!” Another scream, another push.

“I know it’s fast,” the doctor says, scooting closer to the end of the table. “But this is good. You’ll be grateful for a quick labor come tomorrow. Patricia!”

“No, my husband’s not here yet. Ana, she can’t be born before Elliot gets here…”

“I know, he’s coming.”

A nurse scurries into the room with a tray on a cart and quickly dresses the doctor in a plastic gown, mask, and gloves.

“No.” Kate shakes her head defiantly. “No, I’m not going to do this until he’s here. I ca—AAH!” Her fingers crush my hand and I shoot a worried look down at the doctor.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey,” he says. “We can’t wait. You’re going to need to start pushing.”

“No. No, I won’t.”

“It’s not an option. I need you to push for me, okay? In three, two…”

She lets out a distraught sounding sob. “Ana.”

I squeeze her hand, holding her just as tightly as she holds me. “I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. Now push, Katie. Push!”

The imploring look she gives me gives way to agony in an instant and the room fills with the sound of her pain as she gives her first real push. This is happening, just like that. She’s not just in labor, she’s giving birth, and I’m the only one here with her.”

“Good, Katie,” I tell her as her muscles relax. “You’re doing so good.”

Tears swim in her eyes. “I don’t want to do this, Ana. Not yet. I need more time.”

“We don’t have time. She’s coming, ready or not. But Elliot is going to be here any second and I’m going to get you through this until he comes through that door. You’ve got this, Kate. You can do this.”

“I-I—“

“Here we go,” the doctor interrupts. “Big push now, Mrs. Grey. In 3, 2, 1…” She screams once more, and as the sound reverberates off the walls of the tiny room, the door bursts open and Elliot steps inside, looking frantic.

“Elliot!” Kate pants.

He rushes to her side, takes her free hand in his, and brings her fingers to her lips. “I’m here, I’m here. I’m sorry. Are we doing this?”

I nod. “She’s coming. That was her second push.”

“Good. You’re doing so good, baby. I love you so much.”

I sigh in relief and move to slip my hand out of Kate’s, but the moment she feels movement, she tightens her hold around me. “No, don’t go!”

“Okay,” I nod, stepping right back up to the side of the bed. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“One more time, Mrs. Grey,” the doctor instructs her. “Big push on 3, 2, 1…”

After her first ten pushes or so, her forehead is coated with sweat, so I wet a towel in the metal sink against the far wall and dab it against her skin. Elliot coaches her perfectly, offering her encouragement when she needs it, and praise once she’s made it through a particularly rough contraction. I can see the exhaustion on her face, but when her eyes meet with Elliot’s, somehow, she finds the strength to keep going.

“Excellent job, Mrs. Grey,” the doctor says. “I can see her head.”

“You can?” She turns wild-eyed to Elliot. “Can you see her?”

He looks between her legs. “Holy shit, there she is. That’s her head!”

“I want to see,” Kate cries. The nurse standing behind the doctor picks up a mirror from her tray and places it between Kate’s legs, but just as she’s about to sit up, she’s hit with another contraction. A tear leaks over her lower lid as the pain once again becomes clear on her face. It’s hard, seeing her like this. Every scream of pain seems to make my chest tighten, like I’m being crushed by a boa constrictor. And it goes on, and on. For all the urgency with which this birth began, I’m surprised by how long it takes for the baby to actually make her grand debut. I always thought waiting was just about dilating, but Kate pushes for over an hour before her little girl really starts to emerge.

I watch her head appear, then her shoulders, and, after a few more pushes, the doctor invites Elliot to take the baby in his hands and he pulls her the rest of the way from Kate’s body. Then it’s over. Just like that. Kate collapses back onto the bed, panting as though she’s just run a marathon, and the doctor holds her daughter up for Elliot to cut the cord.

“Give her to me,” Kate says. “Give her to me.”

Without even cleaning her off, the doctor slides the baby into Elliot’s arms and he carries her over to Kate.

“Here she is,” he says.

She smiles and holds out her arms. “Kennedy.”

“Kennedy?” I look between them, brow furrowed, and Elliot smiles.

“Yeah.”

“That’s beautiful. Does she have a middle name?”

“Kavanagh,” he answers, since Kate is too busy marveling at her brand new daughter’s face. “We’re all Trevelyan Grey, me, Christian, and Mia. So, we thought we’d carry on the tradition.”

“Kennedy Kavanagh Grey,” I repeat, my grin growing wider. “I love it. Congratulations. She’s so beautiful.”

“Thanks, Ana,” Elliot says, but Kate ignores me. She ignores Elliot. She ignores the doctor and the nurse. She only has eyes for Kennedy, and I have never in the nearly fifteen years that she’s been my best friend, seen her look any happier.

Next Chapter

Chapter 12

594be3cfb6f9f0182913aedb

After months of the ever present blanket of clouds and rain, spring makes its first grand appearance the Saturday after my first week of work. The sun is warm in the clear sky, there’s a gentle breeze that blows off the lake behind our house, and the air is filled with the sweet scent of blooming flowers and freshly mown grass. It’s the kind of day that demands your attention. So, after Christian finishes a phone call with Ros and I’ve cleaned away our breakfast, I call the family, pack up a picnic lunch and a blanket, and take the baby to play in our, so far unused, park sized backyard.

It’s the perfect day. Christian is undistracted, Calliope’s face is alight with joy, and for the first time all week, I’m able to forget about the unread submissions continually trickling into my inbox. There’s nothing but warm weather and plastic wands for blowing bubbles.

“Mine! Mine!” Calliope complains when Christian takes the wand back to dip into the soapy liquid. It’s the newest word she’s picked up at daycare, most likely because she’s been forced to share toys for the first time in her life, and I’m not the biggest fan.

“Please,” I correct her, but she only blinks at me before turning back to Christian and holding out her hands for the wand again. He laughs, then passes it back to her, and as she blows raspberries at the iridescent liquid inside the loop, I glare at him.

“What?”

“You can’t reward her for bad behavior. She doesn’t get to demand things. If she wants something, she can ask politely for it.”

He looks appalled. “My daughter doesn’t need to ask permission to take what’s hers. We should be encouraging her to stand up for herself. It’s exactly this kind of tenacity and sense of self worth that will make her into a world leader one day.”

“Or you’ll turn her into a spoiled brat.”

“Brat? No, not my sweet little Calliope. Look at this face. Does this look like a brat to you?” He turns her around so that she’s looking up at me and while I watch her attempt to blow bubbles in the same way she leaves kisses on my cheek, I can’t help but melt under her wide eyed gaze.

“See,” Christian says, gloating. I wrinkle my nose at him.

“This is no way an approval of your behavior,” I tell him. “She’s just so cute.” I lean forward to tickle her tummy and when she starts to giggle, I scoop her into my lap and kiss every part of her face that I can reach. Christian smiles at the both of us, but is distracted as he pulls out his phone by a series of booming barks coming from the house. In the next second, Champ comes barreling down the yard towards us and I’m only just able to move Calliope out of the way before he’s on top of me, pinning my shoulders down to the ground with his massive paws while he covers my face in slobber.

“Champ!” Elliot yells, running down to pull him off of me, but Christian gets there first. He pulls the dog back off the blanket from us, but it doesn’t stop him from struggling to get back to me. I laugh, check to make sure Calliope wasn’t scared, and then scoot forward to scratch his flat head and wrinkly lips.

“Hey, Champ! Oh, I missed you!”

“The dog?” Christian asks, raising an eyebrow at his brother. “You brought the dog?”

Elliot shrugs. “He’s been cooped up in that apartment for months. It’s a nice day, Kate wanted to bring him so that he could get some exercise.”

“So take him to a dog park.”

“Okay,” Elliot laughs. “You go say that to my eight month pregnant wife. See how that works out for you.”

“Where is Kate?” I ask, but, in response, Elliot just turns towards the house. I follow his gaze and see Kate waddling carefully over the sloping grass towards us, holding her round tummy as if she’s afraid not supporting its weight will send her tumbling down the lawn.

“Babe, wait,” Elliot calls. He rushes towards her but she holds a hand out towards him in defiance.

“I don’t need your help, I can walk thirty feet.”

“I don’t want you fall.” He reaches out to take her arm, but she yanks it out of his hold.

“I’m pregnant, Elliot. Not an invalid.”

“Fine.” He holds his hands up in surrender and backs a few feet away. Kate’s mouth sets in prideful determination, but after taking a few steps down hill, she starts to lose her balance. Elliot crosses his arms over his chest and grins.

“Need some help?”

“No.” Her stubbornness is actually quite impressive. I almost wonder if she’s going to stay stranded in that one place all afternoon in order to make her point that she doesn’t need Elliot to help her, but she turns pleading eyes towards me. “Ana…”

With a laugh, I get up and take the hands she reaches out for me, then slowly guide her down to our blanket. She does let Elliot hold most of her weight as she lowers herself onto the ground, but once she’s settled in, she quickly brushes him away.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Alright.” He takes a few steps back. “Do you want anything?”

“Elliot… You’re hovering.”

“Fine.” He begins to dig in the bag they brought along with them and pulls out a bright orange braided rope. Champ, who’s collar is still clutched in Christian’s hand, immediately freezes and focuses every ounce of his attention on it. Elliot swings the toy back and forth, chuckling slightly as Champ follows it with his entire head, and the throws it as far as he can towards the water. Champ takes off like a bolt of lightning and we all watch as he seeks it out, plays with it for roughly two seconds, then brings it back.

“Good boy,” Kate says, when he drops the toy in front of Elliot. As he picks it up and once again throws it as far as he can, she turns to me and sighs, looking as though she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders… or maybe in her uterus.

“You look like you’re ready for the baby to come,” I tell her.

“Oh my god, Ana. I swear, I can’t do three more weeks of this. I’m swollen everywhere. I haven’t seen my feet in weeks, I’m exhausted, cranky, starving all of the time, and I’ve got such bad pregnancy brain that I can’t focus on anything at work. It takes me three times as long to do every single task as it normally would.”

“Well, when do you go on maternity leave?”

“Right now,” Elliot says, emphatically, looking sternly over at her as though this is a fight they’ve had before and he’s ready to launch on the defensive again. “Her last day was Friday.”

“It most certainly was not,” Kate argues. “I’m not just going to sit around the apartment twiddling my thumbs for three weeks when I’m perfectly capable of going to work.”

“You’re not though. You are very pregnant, Kate. You need to slow down and take it easy. You’re done with work for the next twelve weeks.”

“No, I’m not.” Her lips thin together as she struggles to restrain her irritation, and Elliot turns imploring eyes on me.

“Ana, a little help here?”

“He’s right, Katie. You really should take the time you have left to relax and get ready for the baby. Aren’t you about to move into your new house? You could set up the nursery.”

“Oh don’t even get me started on the damn house,” Elliot says, throwing the toy again. His frustration propels the rope farther, sending it crashing into the lake, which Champ jumps into without a second thought.

“What’s wrong with the house?” Christian asks.

“Nothing,” Elliot replies. “Absolutely nothing. I’ve spent the better part of a year building and renovating it to be exactly what she wants, and now she wants to sell it.”

“What? Why do you want to sell it?” I ask.

Kate shrugs. “I was thinking we might talk to Christian about buying Escala.”

“But I thought you loved your new house.”

“I do. I really do. But Escala has a lot of advantages that moving to Medina wouldn’t. Now that Grace and Carrick are basically living full time in the downtown apartment, they’re practically our neighbors and I’d like to have them close when the baby comes. We’ve got doormen and a maintenance staff. The location is really great…”

“It’s closer to her work,” Elliot says emphatically. “She wants to stay because it’s closer to work.”

“That’s not a bad thing, Elliot. It’s closer to your work too, you know.”

“It’s a penthouse apartment in a 31 story building smack dab in the middle of the city. What about that says ‘family home’ to you?”

“A lot of kids grow up in the city.”

“Not our kids. Our kids are going to have a yard to play in and curb for a lemonade stand. I’m not going to have them walking past junkies shooting up in alleys or trekking through homeless camps on their way to school.”

“Dad’s going to fix that,” Christian interrupts. “Remember?”

“Yeah, uh huh.” Elliot rolls his eyes. “So was the last mayor.”

“Where are your parents, anyway?” Kate asks, looking around the yard like she’s going to find Grace or Carrick hiding behind a tree.

“Mom’s on call,” Christian replies. “She was at the hospital when Ana invited her.”

“What about Carrick?”

Christian frowns and Elliot shakes his head. “He and Christian are fighting.”

“We’re not fighting,” Christian says. “We’re having a professional disagreement that he’s brought into our personal lives.”

“Yeah, because it’s stopping him from doing anything else. You know the city council told him that they’re not going to approve his appointments until the budget is finalized? And he can’t finalize the budget while you’re pushing this whole tax cuts for billionaires thing.”

“Wait, appointments?” I ask. “Like… police chief?”

“Yep,” Elliot says.

“Well, then he should stop fighting me,” Christian says. “I’m not asking for that much. And if this project takes off, I’ll be providing more jobs for this city than Microsoft and Amazon combined.”

“And if it doesn’t, he’ll be the mayor that got elected and immediately gave his own son millions of dollars in tax cuts for no reason.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not going to fail.”

“You can’t do what you want to do, Christian! You’re chasing the impossible. As in, against the laws of physics impossible. Dad isn’t going to give you what you want.”

“Then I’ll have to take it.”

Elliot lets out an exasperated sigh. “I swear to god, you two are exactly the same person. Two rams beating their heads against each other trying to get the upper hand, when in reality you’re both just giving yourself brain damage.”

Champ returns again, but before Elliot can whip his toy back out towards the lake, Calliope crawls across the blanket and reaches up for it. “Mine!”

The irritation on Elliot’s face immediately disappears as he looks down at her tiny fingers clutching the air over and over again in her attempt to reach up to an impossible height and take the tug rope from him. He frowns, obviously wanting to give her what she’s asking for but knowing it’s not a great idea to let a ten month old little girl take a toy that the 120 lb Bull Mastiff ten feet away is dying to for.

“I don’t know, Calliope. Champ might get you and you’d get hurt.”

She’s undeterred. “Mine!”

“No, Callie baby. I’m sorry.”

Her face contorts with an impending temper tantrum, but before she burst into tears, she looks over at Christian, her hands still stretched high above her head, and in a shaking voice says, “Mine, Dada.”

Christian moves across the blanket, lifts her up onto her feet, and crouches down behind her. His arms wrap protectively her waist so that he can snatch her up out of reach in an instant if he has to, and then he holds out his hand for the rope.

“No, Christian,” I say, dread gripping my stomach.

“I’ve got her, Ana.” His assurances aren’t enough to make me stop clenching my teeth in fear, but when he turns around again, Elliot hands the toy over to him. I cringe as Champ’s eyes follow the bright orange rope into Calliope’s hand, like beacon, and he begins to bounce with excitement in front of her.

“Alright, Princess,” Christian coaches her. “Pull it back like this and… throw!” He guides her hand back and then helps her snap it forward, but she forgets the part where you’re supposed to let go. Champ takes off, but very quickly realizes there’s nothing to chase, so he trots back and starts to whine.

“Try again,” Christian continues. He goes through the motions with her three more times, but only when he tells her exactly when to let go does she succeed in throwing the toy for the dog. It only travels about a foot away from her, so Champ has to run towards her to pick it up instead of away, but she screams with joy when the dog lays the rope at her feet and then lays patiently down in the grass for her to throw it again.

“Real hard this time,” Christian says on her fifth successful throw. “One, two, three!” With all of her strength she manages to toss the rope another four or five inches, but this time when Champ brings it back to her, he doesn’t step back and wait to retrieve it again. He barrels forward into her and Christian, knocking them back slightly, and starts licking her face from chin to forehead. Christian immediately pulls her up out of the dog’s reach, but she doesn’t look scared or start to cry. In fact, she’s more upset that Christian’s keeping her from reaching Champ.

“No, Dada! No!”

“Let me see her,” Elliot says, but Christian is wary when he looks down at his outstretched hands. Elliot rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to let her get hurt. Champ listens to me better than he listens to you.”

Reluctantly, Christian passes Calliope off and Elliot swings her up into the air before grabbing onto Champs collar and lowering her down so she can pet him.

“Gentle now,” I warn her, nervous to have her so close. It’s not that I think Champ is going to attack her, he’s just so much bigger than she is that he could hurt her on accident. She looks over at me with wide eyes, but Elliot quickly gets her attention again and shows her how to gently stroke her hands across the dog’s fur. The look on her face is that of pure wonder and after a few seconds, Champ’s eyes close and he lays down on the blanket at her feet. Calliope giggles, then falls to her knees and crawls over to him, wrapping her arms around his back in the biggest hug she can manage.

“Whew,” Kate says. “Well, he’s good with kids. That’s a relief.”

Elliot smiles. “Look at her. You’re going to have to get a dog, Christian.”

“Why? I’ve got yours.” He flashes his brother a grin, then pulls out his phone to take a picture of Calliope cuddling with Champ. I peak over his shoulder to see the photo he got, and my heart instantly melts.

For the rest of the afternoon, Christian, Elliot, and I take turns running around with Calliope and Champ, who seem to have a superhuman level of energy to burn. When Champ finally needs to come lay down for a break, Christian walks Calliope down to the lake, where two ducks swim in the shallows around our dock with their brand new baby ducklings. I send Elliot down with some of the bread from our picnic, then grin as I listen to Kate’s euphoric excitement over the impending arrival of her baby girl and watch my own daughter tossing breadcrumbs into the water with her father. When they run out of bread and the ducks swim away, Christian brings her back to me, and she sits on his hip making weird, throaty sounds at him, almost like the crackle of a broken radio.

“What is she doing?” I ask when he sets her on the ground next to a snoozing Champ. He plops down on the blanket next to me and grins.

“Callie, what does a duck say?”

She turns to him and begins making the sound again, and I laugh.

“Almost.”

Christian’s arms wrap around me and he slowly pulls me down onto the blanket. His fingers brush loose tendrils of my hair from my face and then he leans down and presses his lips into mine. I moan and wrap my arms around his neck, but when he begins to nibble on my bottom lip and his hand moves higher up my thigh, I quickly pull away.

“Watch your hands there, Mr. Grey,” I scold him.

His eyes twinkle and his lips stretch into a devious kind of smile. “These hands?”

Before I can squirm away, his fingers clamp down on my sides, moving just enough to make me kick and flail to get away from him, but not enough to give me any leeway to escape.

“Stop!” I scream through my raucous laughter, but of course he doesn’t.

“What was that? What did you want me to do?”

“Stop!” I call again. “Oh my god, I hate you! Stop!” My cheeks start to burn from smiling too broadly and I desperately try to catch my breath. For a moment, I almost break free of his hold, but he pulls me right back into him and his tickles become more insistent. I roll away, laughing and struggling for air. “No! No!”

“No, Dada!”

He stops and turns to see our little girl standing on wobbly legs a few inches away, but holding out one finger as sternly as she’s currently looking down at him.

“I can’t tickle, Mommy?”

“No!”

His face falls. “Alright. Then, I guess I’ll just… have to tickle you!” He launches at her, gently pushing her back on to the blanket and then attacking her with his fingers. She screams and starts to giggle, but while I sit up and look happily at the two of them, Champ comes barreling over the top of them, barking loudly as he knocks Christian off the baby and pins him into the grass, snarling. Elliot nearly falls over with laughter, but manages to compose himself just enough to pull the dog away from my husband.

“Good boy, Champ!” he says in praise. Christian glares.

“Mr. Grey?”

We all turn and see Taylor standing a few feet away, looking slightly uncomfortable to be interrupting us. Christian quickly gets to his feet, brushing away the grass from his clothes.

“Taylor?”

“A package just arrived. I think it’s urgent.”

“Really? I’ll take it in my office.”

“Oh… it’s not for you. It’s for Mrs. Grey, sir.”

Christian turns around and looks down at me, his eyebrow furrowed in confusion. “You’re expecting something urgent?”

I sigh. “It’s probably Walter Daves’ finished manuscript. He’s GSP’s biggest author and we’re depending on his sales to get us through the rest of the fiscal year. Scott was supposed to send it on Friday but, Saturday is good too I guess.” I roll my eyes.

“So, no miracle yet?” Kate asks. I shake my head.

“I’ve actually signed off on a lot of really great pieces. We’ve got a really strong catalogue of non-fiction titles, but unless it’s a celebrity autobiography, that’s not a genre that really produces big dollar sales. Walter Daves’ last series put up impressive numbers, so I’m hoping this novel does at least as well as his last. We really need him to help us make up a big deficit in the fiction department.”

“Well, I guess we’ll leave you to it then.” She reaches out for Elliot’s hands so he can help her to her feet, and then holds out her arms to hug me good-bye.

“You’ll let us know if you need help moving?” I ask her.

“Yeah, but I don’t think we will. Elliot’s working the next two weekends so he can get caught up on everything before taking a few weeks off for the baby. We hired movers.”

“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do. Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, we had a lot of fun.”

“Us too.”

I smile, then pass her off to Christian while I accept a hug goodbye from Elliot. Calliope reaches up for me, so I scoop her into my arms and carry her to the entryway where we see Kate and Elliot off, but by the time we’ve closed the door behind them, her eyelids are drooping so badly, it looks as though she can barely keep them open.

“I think someone needs a nap,” I tell Christian.

“I’ll take her. Apparently, you have work to do.”

“Thank you. I’ll be in my office.” He pulls the baby from my arms into his, and I rise up onto my toes to kiss him before he carries her upstairs to her room. A small sense of longing fills me as I watch them disappear, but I push it aside and try to forget about the beautiful day outside, or any other possible distraction, as I make my way back to my office. There, I find the envelope sitting on my desk, which I rip open to reveal a well put together manuscript. It’s bound better than I would have expected, but I try not to let that set my expectation too high as I start to read.

In a way, The Black Rose, is a relief. It’s much better than the drivel I’ve sorted through all week, but… by chapter six, I’m already convinced this isn’t the blockbuster seller that I need it to be either. Still, I hold out, and over the next three hours I make it to the end. Once I do, I lean back in my chair and let out a heavy breath. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. The writing needs some improvement, the plot is slightly tropy and predictable, and I’m a little worried that once the editors get to it and cut out all the unnecessary fluff there won’t really be much left… but it’s publishable.

Maybe.

Or maybe I’m just desperate.

There’s too much work to be done on it for a weekend I’m spending at home with my family, so I send a text to my new PA, Abby, and ask her to schedule a meeting on Monday with my entire team so we can come up with a strategy of how best to tackle this title, which I fear is going to be a behemoth. Once the email is sent though, and I move to place Mr. Daves’ novel in my bag so that I don’t forget it on Monday, I notice another manuscript that I’d completely forgotten about.

Phoenix, by Hailey Lewis.

With a cursory glance, I look down at the phone sitting on my desk. At home, Christian and I share phone lines, and I can see that he’s currently on a call with someone because of the light illuminated next to the button for line one. He’s undoubtedly taking advantage of Calliope’s nap to finish up whatever he was working on this morning, so I don’t think I’ll be missed if I spend an hour or two reviewing the draft I promised Hailey I’d glance over. I can afford to be a little more comfortable though. So, rather than read at my desk, I pick up a red pen and take the manuscript into the library with me, where I sprawl out on a cushy sofa and begin chapter one.

It’s a sci-fi novel that I would market as young adult, but the story is actually quite complex and interesting. Based in a fictional country which has been taken over by a totalitarian regime that uses violence to squash any attempts at revolution, a young girl named Hazel narrowly escapes a bombing that has killed her entire family and manages to refugee to a safe zone over the border. There, with no loved ones left and no hope for her future, she begins working for the resistance. For several chapters, I read about her journey to become a warrior for her people and then about her victories against her enemy. The title becomes clear. Left horribly burned and scarred from the bombing, she rises from the flames and ashes of her past to become a true hero. But just as I find myself ready to cheer on her victory for the resistance, Hazel finds out that the people she’s dedicated her life to fighting for are only a different side of the same coin as the people who murdered her family. It’s devastating and makes me as the reader feel defeated, until Hazel stands up on her own, sheds the banners of warring countries, and launches her own rebellion. It’s thrilling. Every twist and turn is unexpected and when I finally come to the end, I’m ravenous for more. The whole book reads so effortlessly, that it felt like I was watching a movie, and when I flip back through the notes I made, I realize there are several chapters where I made no annotations at all.

This is it.

This is the story Greenwich needs to publish. It has best seller written all over it. Hell, this could become the next big phenomenon. It’ll take some serious investment, expansion probably, and a dedicated staff comprised of the best of the best, but with the right marketing and editing, we could hang our entire year on this one release. Hell, we could probably ride out the next five years if it lives up to the potential I think it could have. Everyone is going to want this title, big and small publishers alike. The only advantage I have here is that no one else has this yet, and Hailey might be willing to take a gamble with me because of the personal connection we’ve already built. If she does, I’m going to make her the next Suzanne Collins and put GSP right at the top of the Seattle Publishing food chain.

When Christian finally pulls me out of my office so that he and I can share a late dinner together, I’m filled with so much excitement and determination, that I can hardly contain myself. There was some time, when I was sorting through dud after dud in my inbox last week, that I almost thought I’d made a mistake. That my success at Grey Publishing and with Escape might have overinflated my ego a bit and made me believe I was capable of achieving things that were simply unrealistic. But this manuscript has completely erased all of that doubt. I’m that confident in it. And that confidence carries me through the rest of the weekend.

 

****

 

I was wrong before, when I said I wanted Calliope to care that we were leaving her at daycare. I think she thought the place Christian and I dropped her off every morning last week was temporary, and she was willing to give it a try for a week. But when we take her back the following Monday, she devolves into the worst temper tantrum I’ve ever seen. Nothing can console her. She cries, and screams, and kicks… She even hits Kensie in the face when I try to hand her over. And the lecture Christian gives her about hitting when he immediately takes her from our nanny does nothing, because she’s back in his arms, which is all she wanted. But when we finally leave, the tears start again. I step into the hallway outside the locked security door with her screams still ringing loudly behind me.

“She’s going to be fine,” Christian assures me, reaching up to my face and wiping away an escaped tear that I can let show now that my baby is no longer in front of me. “I’ll come check on her after my meetings this morning.”

I nod, but his promise doesn’t make me forget the horrible sounds of Calliope’s screams. Like she was being tortured…

“Hey,” he continues. His fingers wrap around my chin so that he can tilt my face up towards his, forcing me to look into his eyes. “She’s in excellent hands. I don’t want you to worry about her, I want you focus on this book you’re going to pitch. It’s not going to be any fun when Grey Publishing beats your quarterly sales if you can claim that you were distracted by Calliope.”

Despite myself, I smile. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Yes.” He laughs. “And you’re going to be late. I love you.”

“I love you too.” His lips press into mine, washing away a small degree of the pain I feel for leaving Calliope, and then he walks me to the elevator to see me off.

Calliope’s tantrum aside, I feel really good when I get to the office. For the first time, Scott isn’t here to greet me or direct me through what he wants to accomplish today. I’m officially on my own and with Phoenix tucked securely in my bag, I’m feeling more confident about that than I did when I left the office Friday afternoon.

Abby greets me at the door with a mug of tea and an iPad, and she begins running through my schedule for the day as we walk into my office together.

“I’ve booked your flight and hotel for Angela Rowe’s book party in San Francisco, the latest numbers on Pinehart’s sales are on your desk, and you got an email from Calliope’s pediatrician reminding you that her one year booster shots are due. I booked an appointment for April 25th and blocked out your calendar so you’ll be able to go with her.”

I sit at my desk and smile gratefully at her. “You’re a lifesaver, Abby. Really.”

“I do what I can, Mrs. Grey.”

“Ana, please. Is everything all set for our meeting this morning?”

“Yes, ma’am. 09:30 AM. Do you need me to set up any presentations for you?”

“Not today, it should be fairly basic. I’ve got a few emails to respond to and I’ll need to send Pinehart’s number to New York once I’ve reviewed them and made a decision on optioning his second book. Then I’m all set.”

“Perfect. Let me know if you need anything else, Mrs. Grey.”

“Will do, thank you.” She smiles and turns to head back to her place next to Penny at reception, but before she closes the door, I call out to stop her. “Oh, and Abby…”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“Please call me Ana.”

“Right. Ana. Sorry.” I smile at her as she turns to leave, then get to work on everything I have to complete before my meeting this morning, including rehearsing my pitch for Phoenix.

 

The conference room is full by the time I leave my office. Twelve pairs of eyes follow me as I make my way to the head of the table, and before I can even set my things down, I’m barraged with questions.

“Mrs. Grey, I really need you to reconsider the Jefferson Morris title. It’s rough, yes, but I think with the right editing and marketing, it could be a success.”

“Morris is a hack,” a woman named Nadia interjects. “What we really need to discuss is the serious lack of funding that was approved for Rowe’s promotional tour. Pinehurst got almost double what you’ve approved for Rowe…”

“Have you gotten the manuscript from Walter Daves yet?” A hush falls over the room at that question and every pair of eyes turns towards me.

“Yes, I received Daves’ manuscript over the weekend,” I reply. “I’ve read it, and I’ve decided that we aren’t going to pursue The Black Rose for our big summer title.”

There’s a pulse of silence, so intense that it feels heavy, and then a roar as twelve people begin shouting angrily at me.

What do you mean we’re not going to release The Black Rose?

Daves is our best selling author!

You can’t just come in here and cancel my author’s releases! Daves has carried this publishing house for years!

“Exactly,” I say, holding my hands up to the stop the shouting and trying desperately to keep my voice firm. “Daves is the best this press has put out in years, and we’re floundering. Okay, this isn’t a debate. Just like my rejection of Jefferson Morris or the amount of money I’ve allocated to Rowe’s promo tour is not up for debate. I was brought in here to turn this place around, and we’re not going to do that by resting on our laurels and publishing the same weak material over and over again. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you guys, we’re in trouble. And it’s going to take something big to save us. Thankfully, I have something big.”

I reach into my bag, remove the copies that I made of Hailey’s manuscript Sunday night, and begin to pass them around the table.

“This is Phoenix, the debut novel of a local, young author, and it’s brilliant. It’s a young adult, sci-fiction story that I think will work well for audiences aged 12-35, which is our primary demographic, and this one book opens us up for possible franchise opportunities. We’re going to throw all of our weight behind this release, so I want all of you to read it and familiarize yourselves with some of the viral marketing techniques I’ve put together to reach younger audiences. Editing team, you’ll need to get started right away. This is going to be fast so I need everyone on board.”

I pause, expecting questions or requests for more specific direction, but there’s nothing. The people seated around the table before me simply blink at one another, or stare down at the manuscript in their hands as if it’s in an ancient dialect that they can’t understand. At least… for a second.

“Debut novel?” Stevens repeats, the uncertainty in his voice clear. “You’re telling me that you want to cancel the release of our most profitable author to take a chance on an amateur writer who has absolutely no following?”

“Yes. It’s called discovering new talent.”

“No, what it is is bullshit!” Tyler Sullivan, one of our agents, exclaims. “Walter Daves is my author, and I’m not just going to sit back while you discredit everything he’s done for this publishing house so that you can get one of your friends or… one of you or your husband’s bootlicking sycophant’s published. The Stormy Nights Saga built this business. Walter Daves is Greenwich Small Press.”

I take a deep breath and rest both of my hands on the smooth surface of the table before looking Sullivan directly in the eyes. “Tyler, have you actually read The Black Rose?

“Most of it, yes.”

“And what did you think?”

“I thought it was enjoyable. I think we’re going to see just as much success from The Black Rose as we did from Stormy Nights.”

“Really?” I sit in my chair, and click my teeth together in contemplation a few times before continuing. “Tell me, Tyler. What’s your favorite book?”

“Excuse me?”

“Now might be a good time to address one of the bigger issues I think might be hurting us, help you see where I’m coming from. So, I want to know… what’s your favorite book?”

His jaw flexes with irritation. “I’m partial to Tolstoy.”

“Well, that’s an English major answer if I’ve ever heard one. Let’s try again. Jacki, what’s your favorite book?”

She blinks, clearly taken off guard. “Ummm, I don’t know. Pride and Prejudice?”

“Romance. A little old fashioned, but a classic for sure.” I smile encouragingly at her, then begin to pace the table.

“I studied literature at Harvard, so I can’t say that I don’t also enjoy the classics. In fact, I wrote my thesis on the evils of imperialism as is depicted in The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and I took inspiration for my own depiction of desperation for the unobtainable in Escape from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But my favorite book of all time is Harry Potter. Specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I think has something to do with Sirius Black coming into Harry’s life and stepping in as a father figure when he doesn’t really have to, much in the same way my own father came into my life… But the point is, my favorite book is Harry Potter. The magic, the whole new world JK Rowling created… the fantasy. That’s my genre. That’s what makes me love to read. The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire… anything that takes me on an epic journey in a far away world where anything is possible and good overcomes evil. That’s what I want. Sci-fi is good too, though I prefer books based on dystopian futures over aliens, like The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale. But it’s my preference for this genre that makes me an expert. I can tell you what makes a good fantasy hero. I can tell you what themes or plotlines are overdone or cliché. I can tell you what will resonate with other fantasy readers, because I am one. Stevens, you’re currently representing a non-fiction title, a children’s book, and a crime drama. Can you tell me what will make any one of those three a bestseller?”

“Marketing,” he replies.

“No, not what can we do to help boost its numbers. I want you to tell me what specific things in the story itself appeals to the readers who seek out those genres.”

“Ummm…”

“Jacki,” I say, cutting him off. “You said that Pride and Prejudice was your favorite book. Why?”

She blushes. “Mr. Darcy. He’s so wonderful and romantic, and his love for Elizabeth is beautiful.”

“He’s boring,” Tyler says under his breath.

Jacki blushes. “Maybe. I-I guess I’m just a sucker for a happily ever after…”

“And that’s fine. So are millions and millions of other readers just like you. It’s a billion dollar industry, and how many romance novels did we publish last year?”

“None,” Stevens says, and I nod.

“None. Instead, Jacki’s biggest title last year was a horror novel that sold just under 750 copies. So, tell me Jacki, what about that story made you think that it was going to be a success for GSP?”

“Well, I don’t know. It, uh… It just got approved.”

“And it bombed. Now we can talk about the god awful cover art and whether or not we could have done anything to help bolster sales during the release, but the cold hard facts are that that horror story, The House on Switzer Street, was both poorly written and nearly a carbon copy of Stephen King’s Rose Red. Had Jacki been well versed in the genre before she sent it off for approval, she would have known that. We need quality titles and this…” I reach into my bag, pull out my copy of The Black Rose, and toss it onto the table, ”is not quality.”

Every pair of eyes around the table shift down to manuscript before them, but no one says anything. I can tell by the thin lips and several red faces that a few of them want to argue, but won’t.

“I’m telling you,” I say, more gently now, “that this story, Phoenix, is our best move. This is a best seller, and with the right editing and representation, the sales of this one title could eclipse our entire fiscal year from last year. I need you all on board.”

“Yeah,” Jacki says. “She’s right. We need a change. What we’re doing isn’t working. We all know that Mrs. Grey knows how to sell books, we should listen to her.” She turns to look at me. “I’m on board.”

“Good.” There’s a small murmur that makes its way around the table and while it doesn’t necessarily sound confident, it’s not disagreeing either. Maybe most of the people here need to see the outcome of the changes I’m proposing before they fully buy into them, but with something I’m as sure of as I am of Phoenix, I’m okay with that.

“Great, then let’s get to work. We’ll meet on Friday to discuss strategy.”

The room fills with the sound of books closing and chairs scraping against wood as everyone gets out of their seats to return to their desks. I gather my own materials and make a beeline for my office, the disappointment of my team’s less than enthused reaction over Phoenix dissipating as I reach for my phone and dial the number on the note Hailey left for me. It rings twice.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is this Hailey Lewis?”

“Yes it is. May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Anastasia Grey, er… Steele. Do you have a moment?”

“Oh my god, Anastasia Steele! Yes! Yes! Of course I do!”

“Well, Hailey, I just wanted to call and tell you that I finished Phoenix, and I absolutely loved it.”

“You did?”

“I did. And, I’m not sure if you know this, but I’ve recently taken over as the head of Greenwich Small Press. We’re looking for a fiction title to release this summer and I’d like to talk to you about what it would take to get you to sign with GSP.” Several seconds pass, but there’s only silence on the other end of the line. “Hailey? Are you still there?”

“I don’t know. I think I might be sleeping or… maybe dead.”

I laugh. “You’re not dead, I promise. This is real. I’m going to send you an official offer letter, I just wanted to have you on the phone when I told you how truly wonderful your story was.”

“So, you… you really want to publish my book? Like, I’m going to be a real author?”

“Yes, you are.”

“Oh my god.” She’s quiet again, except that I can hear a series of small but harsh broken breaths through the phone that tell me she’s crying. This is overwhelming, I’ve been there before, so I give her a minute. “I don’t know what to say,” she says at last. “Thank you. I mean, you were my hero before, but now…”

“There’s no need to thank me, Hailey. Trust me, you’ve earned this. You’ve truly created something amazing.”

“Ugh! I don’t think I’ll ever get over you saying that. So what now? What do I do?”

“Well, I’ll send an offer letter for you to sign and get back to me and then we’ll meet to discuss the details of your contract. I’ve already given your manuscript to our editing team, so now, unfortunately, all there is to do is wait.”

“Okay. I can do that. Not well, but I can do it.”

“Good. Then I’ll send this contract over to you and we’ll talk again soon. Bye, Hailey. And congratulations.”

“Bye! And thank you. Oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

I hang up the phone, feeling my chest swell with pride and happiness, but as I turn to my computer and pull up the standard contract GSP sends to all of our new authors, I’m distracted by the paging tone on my phone.

“Mrs. Grey, Scott Wallace is on line one for you.”

“Thank you, Penny.” I press my finger into the button next to line one and pick up the phone. “Good morning, Scott. What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me why you’ve pushed the manuscript I sent to you over the weekend off the frontlist.”

“Well, I read it and thought it was extraordinarily average. There’s another work we’re going to be pursuing that I think we’ll find more success with.”

“I didn’t send you that manuscript for your approval, Anastasia. I sent it to you so that you’d get it to your editors. GSP will be moving forward with The Black Rose.”

“I’m sorry, did you read it? It’s not good, Scott.”

“Walter Daves is a bestselling author with an established fan base. We don’t have the luxury of taking chances on unknowns right now because you like fairy tales. This is a business, Anastasia, not your personal book club. Get that manuscript into production.”

Because you like fairy tales? So, someone in that meeting called him.

“No. I’m sorry, but no. This isn’t about my preferences, this about what is going to make this company money. I know it’s been awhile since you’ve had to share this position, Scott, but I’m the President of the Seattle branch, and I am choosing not to move forward with The Black Rose. If you have a problem with that, we can speak with Carmen.”

“I’ve already spoken to Carmen and she’s greenlit the Daves’ title.”

“Wait, you already spoke to her? Why didn’t she call me?”

“I told you this is how it works. You go through me, I go to Carmen. This isn’t a discussion. The decision has been made and you either get on board or you pack your things.” There’s a click as Scott hangs up and then the long droning of the dial tone. My muscles seize with anger. What the hell does he mean get on board or pack your things? He’s not my boss…

But Carmen is.

My body deflates as I sink back into my chair. He’s already got Carmen to sign off on The Black Rose. What am I going to do, call her up and say nu-uh? Scott has numbers on his side. As much as I dislike this story, Tyler was right. Daves’ Stormy Nights series is the biggest title this publishing house has ever released. It was a New York Times bestseller and was nearly optioned by Universal. I brought it up in my interview. Carmen is just like Christian, focused on data and numbers. There’s no way I’d be able to convince her to take a chance on a novice author who’s never been published before over our current sales Juggernaut. Not without some kind of research to back me up.

Gritting my teeth, I get out of my seat and leave my office. Several smug smiles and looks of superiority follow me all the way to reception, but I don’t dignify them with any kind of reaction. My only disappointment is that there are too many people smirking at me for me to immediately know who went to Scott so I can deal with them.

“Abby, I need you to put a focus group together for me,” I say, taking care not to let any hint of nerves our doubt show in my voice.

“A focus group, Mrs. Grey?”

“Eleven participants, ages sixteen to thirty-five, evenly split between males and females.”

“Okay. And this is for…”

“For Phoenix. I’m going to need data if I’m going to explain to Carmen why The Black Rose is a terrible decision for us going forward.”

“That’s not going to work,” a voice says behind me, and I turn to see Tyler standing at his desk, arms crossed, scowling at me. Bingo. “A focus group won’t change anyone’s mind. That’s not the way we do things around here.”

“No, maybe it isn’t,” I say, my voice low and cold. “But it is the way I do things. And as long as my name is on that office, the way that I do things is the way that this branch does things. Anyone who has a problem with that going forward, can go ahead and bypass Mr. Wallace and speak to me directly.”

My eyes narrow in on Tyler, then I push off the counter and storm back to my office, letting the door slam closed behind me.

Next Chapter