Seasons Greetings!

tenor

So, I tried. And I mean I REALLY tried. I barricaded myself in my office, I tried going to Starbucks and two different libraries, I tried writing the chapter out by hand, I tried putting word limits on things like… when I can eat again. None of it worked.

So I think I’m suffering from fatigue and need to take a break. It’s December now, which means Christmas and my birthday:

tenor

With a packed schedule this month, I think it’s a good time for me to go on hiatus and give myself some time away to miss these characters and miss writing, hopefully that’ll get me back on the wagon. So, there won’t be any updates this month. I’ll be back in January.

Thank you all as always.

Lots of love,

WishingMrGreyWasHere

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Chapter 25

misc-11-26-001

I wake Sunday morning to the sound of raindrops splattering noisily against the windows of our cabin. This weekend has been everything I hoped for and more. Sunshine. Family. Chasing Kate and Elliot through the choppy waves on jet skis for hours and hours… The muted gray light filtering in through the windows feels like an end to all of that, so I clamp my eyes tighter together and try to convince myself I’m dreaming. Unfortunately, the all too real warmth I can feel radiating off my husband in the bed next to me makes that impossible. But once I remember that he’s just as naked as I am, something much more potent than disappointment in the weather takes over.

I take a few minutes to reminisce over the night before and feel an instant endorphin rush. His passion was out of control. Wild. And just the memory of the way he touched me, the way he moved inside of me, has me instantly craving more. I decide that I might just wake him up in his most favorite way, except when I roll over, I find that he’s already awake. His hands are folded behind his head, stretching out his bare chest in the most alluring way possible. His eyes, though, stare blankly up at the ceiling, as though he’s looking right through it, and his face is creased with worry.

“Hey,” I say, sitting up. “What’s wrong?”

In an instant, his distress vanishes and he moves his hand from his pillow to cup my face. “Just struggling to ensure you get enough sleep before I do this…” Gentle fingers curl around my cheek, pressing just enough to coax me down to his lips. I hum with contentment and roll my body towards him. As my lips meld to his, I wrap my arm around his chest and use his weight to pull myself up over the top of him. My breasts skim the slopes and valleys of his hard pectoral muscles, and the smooth, whisper soft contact of his skin on mine turns my nipples to tightly rounded pebbles. Just a kiss, a careless touch, and I’m his. But there’s a tension in his lips that I can’t ignore.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” I check.

He frowns. “I’d be better if you wouldn’t stop.”

I raise an eyebrow and he lets out a heavy sigh before allowing his body to relax back into his pillow. “I’m sorry, I just have… a lot on my mind.”

My stomach tightens, but not in the way I hoped it would a few moments ago. Christian hasn’t so much as even looked at the satellite phone, or excused himself to check his email, even one time since Friday night. He’s been as happy and present for me, our daughter, and our family as I’ve ever seen him. But there’s only one thing I can imagine that could occupy his mind enough to let him do something as trivial as worry while I’m naked and spread out over the top of him.

“Are you worried about the tax vote?”

There’s hesitation, then an eventual nod. “Yeah. I guess.”

“What happens if it doesn’t go your way?”

“He takes a deep, uneasy breath, then shakes his head. “It will. Don’t worry.”

“What…” The word only just barely escapes my lips before the rest is cut off by surprise. The entire room whirs around me until, suddenly, I’m on my back. Christian’s body covers mine in the next instant, his thick, strong arms caging me in beneath him.

“You know what I’d really like to focus on right now?” he asks. I open my mouth to argue, but he silences my protest with a hard, deep kiss. I start, taken aback by the sudden assault, but soon the fevered eagerness of his tongue and the low desire filled moan he releases into my mouth push concern aside and I succumb to desire. I throw my arms around him and pull, holding my body as tightly to his as I can manage.

He captures the tip of my tongue between his lips and sucks gently. Each soft pull sends a ripple of pleasure rolling down my spine, like a wave of warm syrup. Then he reaches down beneath the blanket, slides his hand between us, and lightly flicks my clitoris with the pad of his thumb. Once. Twice. Again and again, with the same metronomic pattern, until I start to quake.

“Should I make you come before I fuck you, or make you wait for my cock?” he asks, the want in his voice as raw and rough as sandpaper.

“Now, please,” I breathe back.

I feel, rather than see his responding smile. His finger disappears and is replaced half a heartbeat later with the tip of his erection. The dewdrop of precum at the crown of his head is cool from neglect and it makes my insides clench with delicious anticipation the moment I feel him drag it across my clitoris. He has his fist wrapped tightly around his length and as he starts to tug and pull, he moves across that tightly concentrated bundle of nerves with the same caressing attention he used with his fingers.

His mouth drops open and the gray in his eyes turns to hot, molten steel. His hips thrust forward urgently. With each pass, he presses a little harder against me, moves a little bit faster, until we’re both panting. I close my eyes and let my head loll back, picturing what the blanket and connection between our bodies conceals from me. Him, pleasuring himself while he pleasures me. Even just the thought is like a white hot branding iron against my libido, and when I add the idea of his eventual eruption, expelling over me like lava flows from a powerful volcano, the tight ball of tension inside of me snaps.

I start to come with a high, whiny gasp, and just as the first contractions begin, he pushes inside of me.

“Oh, fuck!” he growls. There’s an almost painful kind of urgency to his expression as he plows into me, pushing as deep as he can reach and basking in the feel of my inner walls milking him for all he’s work while I continue to unravel. The constant lust filled cries pouring from my lips only stop when the pleasure overwhelms me beyond the point of speech and in the split second of silence that follows, I hear the smallest little sneeze.

Christian freezes.

We both turn to look at the bottom of the bed and there, sitting on top of rumpled blankets bunched up around our feet, Calliope sits, yawning, her tiny hand rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“What the hell?” Christian shouts. He immediately pulls out of me and yanks a pillow up off the bed to cover himself as he scrambles to get the baby out of our sex sheets. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him so frantic as he is pulling her into his arms and gaping down at me. “How did she… she was… what the hell?

I blink, just as shocked over my inability to answer that question as he is. There’s a crib set up in Christian’s office, just off our bedroom, and since the door is open, I assume she must have snuck out and pulled herself up on the bed while we were too distracted to notice. But how did she get out of her crib?

I leap out of bed and scramble through the minefield of haphazardly abandoned clothes from the night before to Christian’s office. I expect to find the state of the art crib he insisted we buy in shambles and the evidence of my baby’s painful fall laid out before me like a crime scene. But, except for an abandoned pacifier on the rug at the feet of the still perfect crib, the room is as neat as it was when we put her to bed the night before.

“How did she get out?” Christian asks, reaching out to rattle the bar of her crib and only looking more confused when it doesn’t move. I give Calliope a quick once over and after ensuring she’s not physically injured and that the scrunched up look of discontent on her face is just a mild case of morning grumpiness, I step closer to both of them and smile.

“You’re a wizard, Callie,” I say gruffly. Christian rolls his eyes, and Calliope frowns, then pushes my face away from her with her tiny little hand.

“No, Mama.”

We both laugh as I turn back to her crib. “We’ll need to lower the mattress, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’ll take care of it,” Christian says.

“Mmm.” I bite my bottom lip and then move so I can push my body up against his. “There is something incredibly sexy about a handyman…”

“”Well, then let me go get my tool belt.” He grins devilishly and moves to kiss me, but just before our lips touch, Callie reaches between us to stop him.

“No, Dada!”

“Someone is a little Miss Sass this morning,” I say, pinching her toes and leaning into scrub the tip of my nose against hers. She takes on the same haughty look her dad gets whenever he’s overly defensive about something.

“Mine, Dada.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Christian chuckles, and I reach out to take her from him. “I’ll get her ready if you’ll fix the crib.”

He pivots, moving Calliope out of my reach. “I’ve got her.”

“You’re sure?”

He nods. “It’s Father’s Day. She and I can get started by getting her bed situated and picking out something to wear together.”

I smile and nod, afraid that if I try and say anything the frog quickly working its way up into my throat will betray the sudden swell of love, pride, and happiness I’m trying to keep cool.

I give each of them a kiss and then leave them be. The thick clouds and rain splattering against the window don’t look as though they’ll pass anytime soon, so after a hot shower, I fish a thick cable knit sweater out of the back of my closet and throw it on over a pair of leggings. Then I make my way out to the living room. It’s fairly early, so I think I still have time to make my dad’s favorite breakfast before he gets out of bed, but when I come down the staircase, the first thing I see is him, sitting in a chair by the window with a book and a cup of coffee.

So… not a surprise then.

“Hey, Daddy!” I call, beaming as I cross the room towards him with my arms held open. He looks up at the sound of my voice, then sets his battered copy of A Farewell to Arms on the table and pulls me into a warm hug.

“Morning, sweetheart.”

“Happy actual Father’s Day.”

He laughs, since I’ve wished him a happy Father’s Day at least four other times this weekend so far. “Thanks, Annie. Sleep well?”

“Uh… yeah.” God, I hope he doesn’t notice the sudden rush of heated embarrassment that blooms in my cheeks when my brain conjures up the memories of just exactly what tired me out so much last night. I change the subject. “What do you say to your favorite breakfast? It’s still biscuits and gravy, right?”

“Awh, Annie… That’s real sweet of you, but Kim’s already in there cookin’ up that salmon Carrick and I caught yesterday.”

My heart sinks. “Oh…”

“That’s good though,” he adds quickly. “It means you and I can sit here and talk a bit. You kids have been running around so much, I feel like I’ve barely seen you all weekend.”

“Well, you oughta get out on those jet skis with us from time to time.”

“Oh, yeah. And get launched off into the water and probably break my neck? No, thank you.”

I give him a teasing smile. “You can’t fool me by pretending to be scared, Mr. I’ve Been Through War Twice. I think you wanna be out there so bad, you can’t stand it. You’re afraid of how much you know you’ll love it. Even right now, you’re fighting against the urge to hop on one of those machines, skim off across the waves, and show us damn kids how it’s really done.”

He stares back at me blankly, a challenge to my taunt that is made less effective by the rolling laughter that is so close to the surface, his shoulders twitch. I try my best to maintain the assertion in my gaze, but when a thundercloud claps violently overhead, reminding the both of us that no one is going out on the jet skis today, and a sudden strong gust of wind makes the pitter patter of raindrops against the window suddenly sound like the after sparkle of a Fourth of July fireworks display, we both break down into laughter.

“Well, what do you think?” A voice asks behind us. We turn and watch Carrick stroll into the room with his jacket held open to display his tie. It’s awful. Cobalt blue, but with neon pink, yellow, and green lines zig-zagging across the fabric in a geometric pattern that looks straight out of the 90s. My dad makes an awkward stuttering noise, clearly at a loss for words. Carrick on the other hand looks ecstatic. “Mia sent it to Grace a few days ago. I think it’s one of her best yet.”

“Oh, yeah. It’s going to really pop on camera at your next press conference,” I say.

He grins, refusing to let my sarcasm dampen his bright spirits. “It’s much more of a ribbon cutting tie, don’t you think?”

“Oh, definitely.” I laugh and get up to hug him. “Happy Father’s Day, Carrick.”

“Thanks, Ana.”

 

Christian is last to join us when we all eventually sit down for breakfast in the dining room, and I’m pretty sure it’s because Calliope couldn’t be bothered with choices, so instead decided to wear everything she could possibly get onto her body. He’s dressed her in tights and ruffle socks, a dress and a fuchsia sweatshirt, a tutu, and a pair of glittery sunglasses. He actually struggles to get her into her high chair, but he does seem much more enthusiastic about her overdressing stage than her naked one.

We sit around the table, chatting easily with one another. By all accounts, the rain hasn’t done anything to ruin anyone’s attitude and spirits are high, except I can’t stop grinding my teeth over the praise everyone heaps non-stop onto Kim over her salmon eggs benedict. It is delicious, as painful as that is for me to admit, but I’ve made my dad a special breakfast for Father’s Day for as long as I can remember. The ones we spent together, anyway. And I’m not sure which is worse, that she didn’t even bother to ask me if there were traditions between my dad and I that she should be mindful of today, or that my dad doesn’t even seem to care. I look across the table at Carrick, that stupid tie still proudly in place beneath his collar, and I feel a strong, hot flash of jealous for Mia.

Carrick would care.

“Should we do gift now?” Kate asks, the excitement in her voice making it obvious that the question is less of a suggestion and more of a demand.

“Yes,” Elliot replies. He pushes his chair a few inches back from the table and puffs his chest out importantly. “Laud upon me your praise and mortal gifts, for the unprotected sex I had while I was drunk in Vegas last year culminated in an unplanned pregnancy and now I have a child.”

Kate narrows her eyes at him.

“I mean… I don’t need gifts, baby. Dwight D. Eisenhower over there is already the greatest gift I could have ever asked for.”

“Smooth,” Christian says. Elliot flashes him a cocky grin, and Kate shakes her head in dismay before reaching down to pick up a gift bag resting on the floor by her feet. Elliot digs through the tissue paper and pulls out a set of keys.

“Oh, what are those to?” Grace asks, her interest peaked.

“A riding lawn mower,” Kate answers. “We’ve got that big backyard now and he’s been wanting one ever since that first time he had to go out there with the push mower.”

“And not at all because I want to soup up the engine and turn it into a drag racer.” Elliot winks at me from across the table while Kate shoves him, annoyed, and yanks the bag out of his hands.

“Just give your dad his gift, huh?”

Elliot reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper. “I uh… I haven’t really had time to shop, you know, because I’m a new father to your youngest and most helpless granddaughter…”

“Elliot, did you forget to buy your dad a gift?!” Kate snaps.

“No,” he says. “I just thought maybe I’d give him something more personal. Something you couldn’t buy at the store. Something from right here.” He points to his heart, and Carrick actually looks down at the folded paper with interest. “It’s a poem,” Elliot continues. “From me, to you.”

“Well, thank you, son.” Carrick takes the paper and visibly prepares himself before he begins to read.

“Well?” Grace pushes him. “What does it say?”

Carrick blinks, looks at Elliot, and starts to read aloud.

Roses are red

Violets are blue.

Happy Father’s Day.

I’m sorry I haven’t returned your leaf blower.

“I’m going to kill you,” Kate says. She reaches for Elliot and pinches him, hard, on the arm, but after his harsh, hissed, ‘ouch,’ he captures her hands in his and retaliates with an onslaught of tickles. They laugh together until Elliot pulls her in for a sweet, sentimental kiss.

Christian I go next, giving Carrick a Grey Publishing brand e-reader with the entire library of Carrick’s favorite author already loaded inside. My father unwraps a fishing pole, which is obvious, even under the wrapping paper, that Taylor helped me picked out last week. But even though the gift itself is not a surprise, he looks overjoyed by the strong carbon rod and special reel made for the rough rivers he practically lives on throughout the summer months.

“This is so great, Annie. Thank you.”

“Yeah, it’s sure going to come in handy at the new house,” Kim adds.

“New house?” I ask, a note of panic in my voice.

“Uh… yeah,” my dad replies. I stare, uncomprehending. “We, uh… we sold the house.”

“What?!”

“Well, Kim retired last spring and I have all this extra money from what I had saved for your Harvard tuition… So, we decided we’re going to get out of the city and enjoy our golden years in the mountains. We bought a cabin on the lake.”

“Congratulations,” Christian says.

“Thanks, son,” my dad replies. He wraps an arm around Kim. “We’re really excited.”

“To be honest, I’m surprised we were able to sell the house so fast,” Kim says. “It was so outdated and that god awful carpet color… I thought we’d have to replace it all in order to get an offer and we weren’t sure that the added cost would be worth it. But thankfully someone snatched it up as is.”

I glance between them. At the happy carefree smiles on everyone’s faces as well wishes and questions about the new house they’ve bought are exchanged around the table.

“Excuse me,” I say, tossing the napkin from my lap on my plate and hurrying out of the room. I leave an awkward silence in my wake that’s eventually broken by the voice of my father.

“That’s alright, Christian. I’ll go.”

“Alright,” Christian replies.

I stop in the hall and turn to wait for my father to catch up to me. When he does, he doesn’t say anything. He leans against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest, waiting for me to start.

“I grew up in that house,” I tell him.

“I know.”

“That’s where I met Kate. Where I got my acceptance letter to Harvard…”

“I remember.”

“It’s my sanctuary, Dad. I went there once, when you were still in Iraq. Christian and I were being bombarded with media and that was the only place I knew I could go to get away from it.”

“You’ve told me.”

My lips go tight and grit my teeth, irritated by each and every nonchalant answer my father has given me. “My mom picked out that carpet.”

He sighs and shift his weight. “I’m not arguing with you, Ana. It’s the place where you took your first steps. Where you said your first words. Where you learned to read and where you wrote your very first story. It’s also the place where your mother walked out on me. Where I waited for three, long weeks before I even found out where she had taken you. We’ve lived in that house, but all that’s left are memories and those don’t go away just because we aren’t there anymore. We’ll take them with us and jumble them up with all the new memories we’ll make at the new house.”

“Her house,” I correct him.

“Ah.” He nods with sudden understanding and pushes away from the wall. It means he’s standing straight, and the added height has him looking down on me, which makes me feel like a child. “So it’s Kim, then?”

I frown and look away from his eyes, down to my feet. “You’re buying a house with her?”

“Yeah. I’m uh… I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“What?”

“I mean, I don’t have the ring or anything. I’m not doing it this weekend. But I will, soon enough.”

My stomach clenches like I’ve taken a blow from a linebacker straight to my diaphram. It’s difficult to make my lungs work under the sudden pressure that takes hold of my entire chest. My ears ring. My mouth goes dry. Part of me wonders if I might be having a heart attack.

“Dad, I can’t… you can’t… She’s awful!”

“Now that’s not fair, Annie.”

“Not fair? She’s the most hypercritical, invasive, and petty person I have ever met. Don’t tell me you didn’t hear the way she said her kids stayed home because not everyone owns the company they work for when we got here, as if the fact that we do means we don’t have to work as hard.”

“Well, yes. She was a little upset that we left without her kids and maybe she was a little more vocal to you about it than she should have been. But she and I had just gotten a little heated over the subject in the car and if you had hurt feelings because you felt you were being excluded from a family weekend that you really wanted to be apart of, you better believe that I would have some words to say about it too.”  

“But…” I stammer, too flustered and blindsided to formulate a through correctly.

“The truth is, Annie, you don’t like her because you never tried to like her. Is she perfect? No. But there isn’t a person in this entire world who is. You think that she’s invasive, but really… she just cares. A lot. About you, about Calliope, and about Christian. The things you see as being critical are just her trying to be helpful. ‘Cause that’s all she really wants, sweetheart. Even if she’s not always very good at it.”

I chew on the inside of my cheek. The shock of his announcement wears away and takes the anger I felt with it. But I hate that. I don’t want to be reasoned with. “You forgot petty,” I grumble.

“Yeah, well, she’s a little petty…” He grins and, damn it, I can’t help myself. I break and laugh.

“You see?” he says, smiling victoriously. I shake my head and decide I finally have to say the thing that has plagued me since the day he first time brought Kim to Seattle.

“She has her own kids and they don’t live as far away as I do. She’s got grandkids for you to play with. She seems to be a decent cook. Now she’s selling our house… I’m afraid that she’s going to take you away from me, Daddy, and you’re all I have left. I’ve already lost Mom, I can’t lose you too.”

“Anastasia Rose.” I have to blink away the tears from my eyes, so I’m a little surprised when he pulls me into his arms. The warm, familiar smell of him swirls around me, but instead of comforting me, the way it has my entire life, it only makes me break down harder. “No one, or nothing, will ever take me away from you, do you hear me? Me and you, we’re solid.”

“But…”

“No, no buts. You, my darling daughter, are the love of my life. Nothing can ever change that.”

I nod into his chest, letting his words fill my head and swirl around until they’re seared into me. Only then can I breathe again, and once I do, I sniff hard and hug him back. “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Annie. And I know exactly how far away you live.” He pulls back so that I look up at him. “Which is why the new house has a bedroom just for you.”

“It does?”

“Yep. There’s a whole little apartment up in the attic for you and Christian and the baby. It’s got these big windows that overlook the water and a skylight for you to see up into the stars. I’m working on a desk in my garage right now to put up there for you. I thought maybe, if you needed a place to get away and write, it could be there. With me.”

“You really did?”

He nods. “You’re going to love it, Annie.”

“Love it? When can I move in?”

He laughs, then looks over his shoulder in the direction of the dining room where the rest of the family is still waiting. “You know what, what do you say you and I skip the rest of breakfast, huh? Maybe we can go set up a game of chess and just, spend some time you and me.”

“What about Kim?”

He shrugs. “She’s grown, she can entertain herself for awhile. Today’s about us.”

I smile and nod enthusiastically, the wrap my arm around him while he steers me back to the living room.

“You were wrong through,” I tell him.

“Oh?”

“Before, when you said there isn’t a perfect person in the world. There is one, and her name is Calliope Katherine.”

He chuckles. “You got me there, Kiddo.”

 

The continuing downpour means that my dad and I don’t get too much time alone, but as everyone starts to trickle out of the dining room and into the living room with us, they mostly leave the two of us alone. It’s the best of both worlds really. I get to let my dad clobber me in chess over and over again while we talk about the books we’ve been reading, the edits I’ve been making to my manuscript after my Lincoln breakthrough, and the new quarterback the Seahawks just drafted out of Wisconsin.

I also get to watch Christian spend the entire day with Calliope, and the patient way he listens to her and plays with her, the way he lets her consume every ounce of his attention, makes me happier than I can put into words. He looks at her with a kind of love that even I can’t recognize, and I know that’s because I’m not supposed to. It’s just for her. The way he holds her in his arms as he reads The Poky Little Puppy to her for the fifth time in a row, or the delight on his face when he takes a sip from the empty toy teacup she hands him over and over again makes me think of the times I did the very same thing with my own dad growing up. The dad who means more to me than almost anyone else in the world.

For all the things that I have, or that I have accomplished, that I can look back on and know I did right, none of them make me more proud than the man I chose to be that person to my daughter.

“Your move, Annie,” my dad says. I jump a little as I come out of my thought provoking stupor and his brow furrows with confusion. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” I smile and look back over at Christian, lifting Calliope over his head while she laughs uncontrollably. “Yeah, I’m perfect.”

Our chess tournament lasts all afternoon, until Grace insists we call the game on account of dinner. I bear my defeat with as much dignity as I can while my dad announces to everyone how he absolutely wiped the floor with me and I become the target of several taunting remarks, especially from Elliot. Christian at least offers a hand in support when I take my seat next to him and when I lean into his side and feel him wrap a comforting arm around my shoulder, I suddenly no longer care about the severity of my loss anymore. Everything is just as it should be. My family is happy and in Christian’s arms, I’m exactly where I belong.

That is, until our dinner is interrupted by the ring of the satellite phone from across the room and everyone’s eyes turn to Christian. A shadow of the deep unease I saw on his face this morning before he knew I was awake returns and it takes the wind out of me like the air from a balloon. Very few people have that number, so there are very few reasons why it would ring.

“Excuse me,” Christian says. He rises from the table and crosses the room to pick up the phone. “Grey. Yes, Councilwoman, how are you this evening?”

There’s a harsh, tinkling sound from the other side of the table, which I realize is Carrick dropping his silverware. His eyes narrow in on Christian, examining every change in his expression and every small movement of his body. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and I wonder if that’s because he’s afraid to miss a single word that Christian says.

“Uh, yeah,” Christian continues. “He’s right here. Hold on.” Awkwardly, he turns back to the table and holds the phone out to us. “Dad, it’s for you.”

Carrick nods, but when he gets up to take the call, he leaves the room. Christian stares after him for a long minute, then blinks and comes back to the table.

“It’s late,” he says. “I’m going to put Calliope to bed.”

“Do you want me to come?” I ask, half standing in preparation, but he shakes his head.

“No, I’ve got it. Stay. Enjoy your dinner.” He pulls back the tray of her highchair and she eagerly reaches up for him. Once he has her pressed to his chest, she immediately goes limp as she really is ready to go to sleep, but the sense of wonder and unfettered pride that has filled Christian’s eyes all day with every single glance at our daughter is gone now. It’s like a switch has been flipped. He’s physically here, but I know that his mind is already on the work he’s undoubtedly about to retreat into his office to do.

Once he’s left the room, Elliot sighs. “What are the odds we see Christian again tonight?”

I shake my head and Elliot gets up from the table to pick up his own daughter and take her to bed, though we all know he’ll try to bring Christian back with him. Grace smiles at him, confident in his ability to win her son over as he has so many times in the past, but I know better. Everything with this fusion project, and everything it touches, isn’t like what we’ve dealt with in the past. Christian’s taken this to a whole new level, and if whatever Carrick is being told right now is a threat to the future of his fusion project, there’s no way he’ll stop trying to counteract it.

“I’ll take the dishes in,” I say, getting up and collecting everyone’s plates.

“Let me help,” Kim says. I give her a tight smile and shake my head.

“I’ve got it, thanks.”

Loaded down with and armful of dirty dishes, I make my way back to the kitchen, feeling heavier than I have all weekend. To my surprise, I find Carrick there, bent over the counter, the phone resting on the wood block by his hand.

“Everything alright?” I check.

“We’re going to lose,” he says. “Well, I am. Christian’s got the support of the city council and with the cuts they’re going to offer him, GEH will be operating at a negative tax rate this year. $2.6 billion dollars last year, and the Seattle taxpayers are going to be paying his operating costs for him.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” I tell him, honestly, because I am. This whole thing has me washed with guilt. But Carrick and I both know that once Christian has his mind set on something, there’s no changing it. Not even by me.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Carrick asks. I shake my head and he sighs. “The alternative budget proposal my office put together to accommodate the revenue shortage from the loss of GEH’s tax payments cuts from every city agency. Even the police department.”

“So no investigation?”

“No.”

I nod. “You still get to appoint a new police chief though, right? Someone we can trust?”

“Yeah, I get to make an appointment, but that’s not going to dig anything up about what happened to you.”

“I know. We just… We have to accept that we’ve done everything that we can do and that it’s going to be enough to prevent something like Lincoln from happening ever again. If you trust the man you’re going to appoint, then I’m okay.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. Andrew Lincoln is gone. He can’t hurt us anymore. And the people who helped him… most of them didn’t have a choice. There’s no greater conspiracy out there. It died with him. I’ve accepted that and now all I want to do is move on. Maybe this is for the best. A police investigation would have taken months, years maybe. This way, we can just let go and live our lives.”

“Yeah.” He nods absentmindedly, but in a way that suggests he’s still trying to process what I’ve said, rather than to simply agree with it. But after looking into my eyes and finding no concealed hurt or blame, he gives me a warm smile. “You really are better, huh?”

“Yeah. I am.”

He pushes away from the counter and comes around to hug me. “I’m glad. We were all really scared for awhile. I don’t know what we would do without you, Ana.”

“Well, there’s no reason to find out.” We hug again just as someone comes into the kitchen behind us. Kim has all the dishes I couldn’t carry in one trip in her hands and, for once, I’m not annoyed at her presence.

“Everything alright?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say with a smile. “Can I leave these to you? I think I know just the thing to get Christian back downstairs.”

“Sure, Sweetheart.” She smiles and touches my arm affectionately as I pass. I can hear the low conversation from Grace, Kate, and my dad floating up the hallway from the dining room. It sounds like Elliot has rejoined them, which would be disheartening if I knew I didn’t have the exact news it’s going to take to get Christian to stop worrying over this vote and join his family. Or at least, I think I do, until I get to the bottom of the steps and find a single red rose petal.

“How did…?” I lean down to pick it up and as I rub my fingers over the soft petal, I see another resting a few steps up. Then another. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs to the top of the stairs, but as it winds down the hallway towards my bedroom, that sparse trail transforms into a thick carpet of petals that leads me to the bathroom.

It’s warm inside, and humid. The deep soaking tub is steaming and filled to the brim. Every inch of the counterspace and the ledge by the window is covered in a line of flickering candles that cast soft light around the small room. The path of rose petals at my feet continues forward, all the way across the bathroom floor, and then up and over the edge of the tub. The last few petals float among the bubbles on top of the water.

“Christian?” I call through my smile, but he doesn’t answer me. I assume he’s still trying to get our daughter to sleep so I decide I’ll indulge a little while I wait. I strip out of the now too warm sweater and toss it out the door, leaving my own trail for him to follow, then step into the hot, fragrant bath. I’ve just sunk down into the thick, foamy bubbles when the door opens again and Christian steps into the bathroom holding two flutes filled with bubbly champagne. He’s already gloriously naked, and my eyes rake over him hungrily. Drinking him in. Pining for more.

“Get in here,” I demand. His eyes flash deviously, and as he takes a step towards me, his mouth curls up in a cheshire cat grin. He sets the flutes on the ledge next to the tub, then slides in behind me. I turn to face him and crawl into his lap, straddling him, and using my legs to pull him closer to me.

“I take it you know, then?”

“Know what?”

“About your dad’s phone call…”

He shakes his head. “No, and I don’t want to talk about that right now. Calliope is asleep, which means my father’s day duties have come to an end and I have been waiting for this all day. He leans down and kisses the top of my breast, then moves his lips up over my chest, collar bones, neck, jaw… stopping just short of my lips. “I don’t want to talk at all. All I want is–”

I don’t wait for what it is he wants. I kiss him, hard, and he immediately wraps me more tightly in his arms and thrusts his insistent tongue into my mouth. He’s already hard beneath the water, so I rise up onto my knees and slide down over the top of him. His responding groan resonates in every one of my pleasure receptors, and as he fills me in the way that only he can, every other thought and worry falls out of my mind. I no longer care about our family waiting downstairs. I can’t be bothered by tax cuts or budget shortages. Not even the water that laps over the side of the tub and spills on the floor makes me hesitate. I focus only on him. On the urgency of his touch, on the taste of his tongue. And as I start to melt into him, he begins to move. Really move. And he doesn’t stop until we’ve dropped anchor in Seattle hours later.

 

Updates

Hi guys,

I just wanted to give everyone an update as to why there’s no update this week. Last week, my husband and I got a call that his aunt was in critical condition and we needed to get to Las Vegas to say our final goodbyes.

I live in Seattle and flights on a holiday weekend were exorbitant, so he and I got in the car at 5 AM last Wednesday and drove to Las Vegas, which is insane and was terrible (to be clear). Needless to say, I’ve been travelling for over a week and couldn’t write, so there was nothing to post. I just got back yesterday, so hopefully that’s enough time to get a new chapter finished by Monday (I’m optimistic).

Additionally, I want to let you guys in on the big secret as to why my posting has been so irregular over the last few months. It’s not tragic or sad, just the result of a plot that didn’t work. I told you all that for the first three books, I worked off an extraordinarily detailed and long outline, so when I decided to write a fourth book, the first thing I did was sit down and plot the whole thing out. But then I started posting and the reaction wasn’t great. I pushed through, as I usually do, but it became apparent that holding on to what I wanted to do wasn’t really worth it when my audience wasn’t connecting to it.

So I decided to make a change.

I’m taking the story in a completely different direction from my plan going forward, and am going to try writing without an outline. I know what is going to happen and how the story ends, but I haven’t plotted out every detail the way I did previously. Instead, I’m going to work in small archs. I’m worried it’s going to affect my ability to throw in the little nuggets of foreshadowing, but if it makes the story better in the end, that’s what I’m here for. I might go back and change the beginning when the story is done, we’ll see.

The result is, however, that I’m writing outside of my comfort zone and that affects productivity to a certain degree. I really do try and get updates done every single week, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and I really am sorry for that. Every time I have to post one of these, I feel like I’m not upholding my end of the bargain. But I do want to reassure everyone that I WILL finish this story. I’ve spent too much time with these characters to just abandon them.

The plus side is changing my plan means this story is going to be much longer, so we can all look forward to more chapters. And, through this experience, I learned how to write for this genre better and will use that for all of my works going forward, so thank you for your feedback, both good and bad. This is a prime example of how much it really does help.

As always, thank you from the bottom of my heart (Britney reference) for all of your love and support through the years! You guys keep me wishingmrgreywashere.

xoxoxo

Chapter 24

Jumping Ocean Humpback Whale Breaching Mammal

There’s a welcome sense of levity in the sunshine that pours through the kitchen windows Friday morning.  Gail’s spotless countertops and stainless steel appliances glint and gleam under the soft golden rays, and the light that washes over me from across the kitchen island is warm and filled with the scent of summer. Calliope is playing on the kitchen floor, so I pack the last few things we’ll need on the yacht this weekend to the arrhythmic, tinkering cacophony of plastic toys dropping and rolling across the floor around my feet. I nearly step on her fragile little fingers when I move to reach for a bottle of sunscreen at the same time that she tries to recover a runaway ball.

“Callie!” I yelp, nearly falling as I contort my body in a strange and unnatural way to avoid her. “Careful, baby.”

She looks up at me with her perfect rosy pout and curious gray eyes, and when she picks up the ball and holds it up to me, I smile and sweep her up onto the counter in front of me.

“Maybe we should get you all lotioned up before we get into the sun, huh? What do you think?”

She blinks, then looks down and starts tugging at her dress. “Nakie, Mama.”

“We’re just about to leave, Munchkin. You can’t be a nakie baby when we leave the house.” I pick up her hands and kiss each of them to get her to stop fidgeting with her outfit. It might be just a tad costume-y with navy stripes over white fabric, brass buttons, and a cap to match, but the sailor inspired dress makes her look just like a little china doll and I can’t help myself. I’ve got… what? Three? Maybe four more years to dress her however I like before she starts making her own demands, and I intend to take advantage of my time while I still have it. Besides, Christian is going to lose it when he finally comes down stairs and sees her.

She struggles when I start rubbing sunscreen on the exposed parts of her arms and legs, but is easily diverted by a rousing verse of The Wheels on the Bus. I swipe a dab of lotion over her nose and she babbles happily along with me, until Christian’s voice begins to float into the kitchen from the entryway.

“Whose vote haven’t we secured? And when’s the last time we reached out to her office? Well, that’s the problem don’t you think?” He comes around the corner with his phone held firmly to his ear, and I can’t help but think how his casual shorts and linen shirt contrast starkly with the stress etched into the lines around his eyes and his mouth. Calliope shrieks happily the moment she sees him, but he holds up his hand to silence her and shakes his head. When she starts leaning far over the edge of the counter with her hands outstretched for him, I lift her back down to the floor and distract her with a baby doll while Christian finishes his call. “Andrea, are you on? Good, get me a phone call with Greenman this morning, as soon as possible.”

I slip the sunscreen I’d just slathered all over my daughter into the bag with our beach towels and wait for Christian to hang up. When he does, he sighs heavily and leans over the counter as though he’s doubling over after running a marathon.

“Rough morning?” I ask.

“The city council is voting on my dad’s budget proposal on Monday and if we don’t get these tax cuts passed, I might as well…” He stops, takes another deep breath, and looks up at me with careful conviction. “Ana, I don’t think this weekend is a good idea.”

“You love being out on the yacht…”

“I do, but I’ve got to make sure this vote goes my way, and we’re leaving Monday for New York and I haven’t even prepared what I’m going to say during our finalist presentation for this fiber optics contract…”

“So, you’ll prepare on the flight there. It’s not like this is the first time you’ve ever had to sell GEH to a big client. You know what to do.”

“Ana…”

“It’s your birthday weekend, Christian. Going out on the yacht for your birthday is tradition. And it’s Father’s Day. We can’t skip out on both of our dads.”

“Believe me, I think my dad would be much happier spending the weekend with Elliot.”

“That’s good, cause he’s going to be there too.” He gives me a look that tells me he’s less than amused with my snarky responses, so I move around the counter and push myself into his arms. His body is tense, rigid almost, and I try to ease some of that away by taking his face between my hands and gently pressing my lips to his. It takes a second, but soon enough his mouth melds to mine with warm affection and the tightness in his body melts away.

“I want some time away with you,” I confess, whispering the words against his lips. “It’s been a heavy week and the only thing that’s gotten me through it is the idea of you stretched out on a sun lounger, bronzed from the sun and all oiled up for my enjoyment.”

“Enjoyment, huh?”

“Oh yes, and I think you’ll enjoy what I have planned for you very, very much.”

He laughs, and the lines around his eyes smooth away. He looks at me for a long, drawn out beat, then sweeps my bangs to the side so he can kiss my forehead.

“You really are irresistible, you know that?”

“Then stop trying.”

“Noted.” He gives me the undeniably sexy, side smirk he gets when I know he’s thinking about something dirty and leans down to kiss me again. This time, he’s much more ardent in the way he tangles his tongue around mine or sucks softly on my bottom lip. But when his hands start to roam freely down my body, I quickly slap them away and give him a stern look..

“We’re going to be late.”

He shakes his head. “It’s my yacht, it leaves when I tell it to.”

“People are waiting on us.”

“So?” He leans down and drags his bottom lip over the curve of my neck, making me shiver and squirm away from him.

“Christian!”

“Fine.” He steps back, looking disappointed but still in a better mood than before. I brush the tip of my nose against his, smiling broadly, and then hop off the counter.

“You get the baby into her car seat, I’ll get the bags.”

“Think you packed enough?” His eyes sweep over the bags piled on the counter and the suitcases on the floor next to me before turning back to me with a teasing grin plastered across his face. I narrow my eyes.

“It’s not just for this weekend. We’re going straight from the yacht to the plane on Monday and… and…”

“And?”

“And if you hadn’t let Gail leave early this weekend, she would have packed everything exactly the way you like it. But you did and she’s gone, so you’re stuck with me and my over packing.”

“And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

He kisses me one last time and turns to collect our baby, while I sling the long straps of the boat bag over my shoulder and give myself another minute to worry over what I may have forgotten. The truth is if Gail had been here, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to what we were bringing along because her perfect organization has never failed us before. But she left last night for Portland, just like Taylor left to take his daughter on a camping trip around Mount Rainier and Kensie took the weekend to cram for her final for the first session of summer classes at UW. We’re on our own this weekend and now that we’re headed out the door, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missed something.

“Calliope Katherine, what in the world are you doing?” Christian says, catching my attention. I turn to look at the two of them and watch as he picks up our baby, who has somehow managed to strip herself down to her diaper. She beams at him and throws her hands into the air.

“Nakie!”

Christian laughs and hugs her close to him, then kisses her and leans down to scoop the adorable dress that she hates off the ground. “Why don’t you get the baby and I’ll load the car?” he suggests. I sigh and hold my hands out for her.

 

Calliope is not happy to be wrestled back into her dress or strapped down to her carseat, and she lets Christian and I know it as we pull out of the garage and make our way through the neighborhood towards the I-5. Her screams are piercing, the kind that stab you through the heart each and every time she takes a breath and shrieks again. By the time we hit the wall of traffic right outside the city, I’ve exhausted every trick in my bag to soothe her and Christian’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel. Though, I don’t know if that’s because of Calliope’s tears or the news broadcast coming through our radio.

 

The Mayor will meet with city council members Monday morning to vote on next year’s budget proposal. It’s the first major legislative task Mayor Grey will face since his inauguration this January, but surprisingly, it isn’t his political opponents that are the biggest threat to his budget being approved, it’s his own son. Seattle billionaire and Grey Enterprises Holdings CEO Christian Grey has campaigned at large for extensive corporate tax benefits to fund projects aimed at rehabilitating the Seattle job market. NPR asked the Mayor if he has any concerns that Mr. Grey has swayed enough city council members to derail his vote.

“I’m not worried about it,” Carrick’s voice says through the radio. “Mr. Grey and the members of city council know full well that the city of Seattle is already extraordinarily friendly towards our larger corporations in terms of tax responsibility and that any further reduction in the tax burden for companies like GEH will only serve to ensure record breaking profits for this city’s millionaires and billionaires while our middle class is left to pick up the tab. I campaigned for tax reform, and I’m fighting for it.”

NPR reached out to Grey Enterprises Holdings, but so far have not received a response.

 

Christian reaches forward, switches the radio over, and the news report is instantly cut off by a song from Tangled. Calliope’s tears come to a halting stop the moment she hears Rapunzel singing, but Christian’s thumb brushes nervously over the Bluetooth button on the steering wheel.

“What happens if this vote doesn’t go your way?” I ask.

“It will.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

The muscle in his jaw twitches with irritation but his response is held up by an incoming call. Andrea’s name flashes across the display panel on the dash.

“Finally. I hope you have good news for me, Andrea,” he answers.

“Yes, sir. Councilwoman Greenman is in a meeting right now, but she’s available at 10:30. I’ve already scheduled a meeting with her office and put the call-in information on your calendar. Should I call your family and reschedule your disembarking time?”

“No, I’ll take the call via Satellite. I want you on as well, and Ros, if she’s available.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll forward the meeting invite now.”

“Good.” He flicks the turn signal, and merges for the exit towards the marina. “We’re just pulling in now. I’ll talk to you once we set sail.”

“Yes, sir. Enjoy your weekend!”

“Not if this doesn’t go the way I need it to,” he replies, but he’s already hung up the phone, and Andrea is gone.

When we pull into our parking place at the waterfront, the only other car we recognize belongs to my father. He and Kim and hovering near the hood of his beat up pickup, pointing off into the sound at some of the sailboats bobbing like toys among the waves.

“Hey, Dad!” I call excitedly, stepping out of the car and hurrying over to him with open arms. “Happy Father’s Day!”

“Thanks, kiddo.” He grunts slightly as he pulls me into a lung crushing hung and swings me from side to side. Just before my toes touch the ground again, he plants a hard kiss against my temple and then rubs his chin over my cheek so that the prickly hairs of his well trimmed beard scrape harshly against my skin.

“Dad!” I push him away, but the power of my indignation is somewhat lessened by the smile I can’t wipe off my face.

“Just planting whiskers, sweetheart.”

I narrow my eyes. “I haven’t believed that was possible since I was seven years old.”

“Then why do you look so worried?” He grins down at me as Christian comes up behind us with Calliope perched on his hip, then turns and holds out his hand. “Hey, son. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” Christian replies. They shake hands and Calliope takes the opportunity to jump out of Christian’s hold, though thankfully my father is right there to catch her.

“And hello to you too,” he chuckles, pulling her into him. “That’s a mighty cute dress you’ve got on there, little girl.” She wraps her arms around him, clinging to him as tightly as she can manage, and while my dad bounces her up and down and soaks up every ounce of affection she offers him, Christian and I turn to Kim.

“Happy birthday,” she says, smiling at him and stepping forward for a hug.

“Thanks,” Christian replies. He passes her off to me, though I’m much more begrudging when I step into her embrace.

“I thought you were bringing your kids?” I ask once we’ve pulled away and I’ve safely retreated out of her reach and back under Christian’s arm. She smiles, but I can tell there’s unresolved tension behind the gesture.

“The boys weren’t able to get today off. If we’d have left tomorrow, then sure. But neither of them own the company they work for so they have to work the hours that they’re scheduled.”

“It’s a long trip,” my dad says, obviously trying to play peacekeeper. “We’d either have to miss today or Monday and Annie’s flying back to New York once we get back.” He turns to me, creating a barrier between me and Kim. “How’s that book release coming along, any how? You haven’t said much about it since Calliope’s birthday.”

“That’s because I’m trying to forget about it,” I grumble. He raises an eyebrow, but I shake my head dismissively and turn towards the back end of the parking lot where I see the rest of our family slowly making their way towards us. My gaze immediately shifts to the car seat Kate is awkwardly schlepping across the asphalt and I take a long, excited breath in as I push past my father to get to her faster.

“Gimme, gimme, gimme!” I say, bypassing the hug she offers me for the tiny sleeping baby buckled in her carrier.

“It’s great to see you too, Ana,” Kate says dryly. I glance up unapologetically at her as I untangle Kennedy’s harness and then lift her into my arms.

“Hi, sweetheart!” I coo, breathing in the warm, addicting scent wafting off the top of her head. “Oh my god,” I groan, turning to Kate. “She smells like heaven.”

“I know, right?”

“Don’t let her fool you,” Elliot interjects. “She draws you in with that new baby smell and then leaks some kind of fluid all over you. Snot. Pee. Whatever sticky thing she manages to get all over her hands… The kid’s a deviant.”

“And yet, from what Kate tells me, she’s already got you wrapped around her tiny little finger,” I reply.

He grins, looking at the baby in my arms with a kind of pride that can only exist between a father and his daughter. “Yeah, she’s alright.”

I laugh, then shift Kennedy in my arms so I can hug him too. The moment I’m out of the way, Grace barrels past me and throws her arms around Christian, while Carrick makes a beeline for Calliope.

“Hi, Princess,” he says, lifting her out of my father’s hands and wrapping her in his arms so tightly that he nearly squeezes the wind out of her. “I’ve missed you so much.”

I frown.

Ever since Christian took this tax issue public with his announcement of the fusion project, his relationship with Carrick has taken yet another severe hit. The two of them have barely spoken at all in the last month and Carrick has only seen Calliope maybe once since. Only now, watching the way he holds her against him, do I see how much it’s really affected him.

He’s missed her. Too much.

“Happy Father’s Day, Carrick,” I say, smiling guiltily at him as I lean in to kiss his cheek.

“Thank you, Ana.” His eyes shift up and lock with Christian’s, and the rest of us seem to freeze under the tension that fills the space between them. They look at each other for several seconds, almost like they’re in some kind of standoff, until I eventually elbow Christian hard in the ribs.

“Happy father’s day, Dad,” he says, only just barely covering the pain in his voice.

“Thanks. And, happy birthday.”

Christian replies with a curt nod, then turns as though he’s going to start up the gangway, but Carrick reaches out and grabs him by the arm to make him stop.

“Look, son…  There’s going to be a vote on Monday and one of us is going to lose. If it’s you, it’s you. If it’s me…” He sighs. “What do you say you and I put everything aside for the weekend and enjoy each other’s company, huh? May the best man win?” He holds out his hand, and Christian’s eyes shift down to it.  

“Yeah, sure,” he replies without shaking his father’s hand. “But if you’ll excuse me, I have a call to make. Please, come aboard. Make yourselves at home.”

He turns and walks up the gangway without another word, only offering a half-hearted salute to the captain as he steps through the door. I turn to Carrick and offer him a contrite look.

“He’s really stressed right now with work…”

“Yeah,” Carrick agrees. He looks up to the ship where Christian disappeared, sighs, and then curls his lips up into a tight smile as he turns his attention back to me. “Come on, we’re wasting valuable fishing time.”

He reaches for Grace’s hand and pulls her up the loading ramp and into the boat, taking Calliope with them. I help Kate get Kennedy back into her carrier, then let her and Elliot board first before my dad throws an arm over my shoulder and drags me inside with him, telling me all about the progress he’s made on his latest carpentry project back home.

Once I’ve made sure everyone is settled in their cabins, I lug my bag up the stairs to the master and find that Christian has already sequestered himself in the office off our bedroom. The door is closed, so I leave him to his call, but by the time I’ve finished unpacking and completed every other meaningless task I can think of, he still hasn’t emerged. Even though it’s taken me over an hour…

“Hey, Annie.” I turn and see Kate standing in the open doorway, smiling at me. “We opened up all the door and windows in the sitting room. It’s nice. You should come join us.”

I turn towards Christian’s closed door again, lips pursed together, and let out a defeated breath before turning back to Kate and returning her smile. “Great.”

She stretches a hand out to me, which I take and drape over my shoulder so we can Wizard of Oz march our way out to the living room. Each of us stumble a hand full of times navigating our way through the narrow passageway, so by the time we reach the rest of our family, we’re both lost to a fit of giggles.

“As I was saying,” Elliot says loudly, clearly indignant that we’ve interrupted whatever he was saying to our parents. “She’s much better now, but it was a rough few days.”

I drop down into the seat next to my father and take his hand in mine, then turn back to Elliot. “What happened?”

“Kennedy just got over her first stomach bug,” he says. “It was awful, Ana. She stayed up the whole night screaming and puking. She went through every outfit she owned until I finally had to put her in one of my old Metallica t-shirts and hold her in my arms so she didn’t suffocate in all the extra fabric when she finally fell asleep. Kate was a mess. I’ve never seen her so worried in all my life. And Lexi died on Grey’s Anatomy last month, so that should tell you the levels of stress we’re dealing with here.”

“Me?” Kate squeaks. “I was panicking? You took her to the emergency room because she had a hundred degree fever and called our pediatrician every twenty minutes for three days.” She turns to me. “And I mean every twenty minutes. 3 o’clock in the morning, Elliot is on the phone.”

“She was having trouble breathing,” he says defensively.

“She had a stuffy nose!” I laugh, but give Elliot a sympathetic look.

“We all worry when they’re sick. The first time Calliope got a fever, Christian flew the NICU doctor who took care of her in Boston out to Seattle to watch over her like her own personal physician and when she didn’t magically cure our baby overnight, he called a neurosurgeon in Sri Lanka.”

Kate rolls her eyes, but Grace puts a hand over her heart and takes a shaky breath, like she’s holding back tears.

“Grace?” Carrick asks.

“My boys are just really good fathers.” The rest of us break out into laughter that lasts several minutes and leaves Kate doubled over in Elliot’s lap, unable to breathe.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “Laugh it up. Can I ask a really serious question though?”

“What?” I ask, still trying to catch my breath.

“I just don’t understand why we’re out in the middle of the sound and yet, the jet skis are on the boat, instead of in the water.”

I roll my eyes.

“We’re waiting on Christian,” Kate says, finally sitting up on the couch again and nestling under Elliot’s arm.

“My little brother?” he asks. “My little brother is the only thing standing between me and 250 horsepower?” She nods and he gets up and moves aggressively towards the stairs, like he’s going to drag Christian down here to join us at any cost, but Kate snags his t-shirt and yanks him back.

“He’ll come down when he’s finished, just be patient.”

 

We decide to play some games together while we wait for Christian to put work aside and join us, but Kate and Elliot are so dominant at both Charades and Catchphrase that the rest of us decide it’s better if we just sit and talk. Lunch comes and goes. We spend some time in the pool up on the top deck. There’s even an hour where we sit around and just watch Calliope as she puts on a show in the middle of the sitting room, clearly happy just to have an active audience.

Christian never comes downstairs.

“Should we think about dinner?” Grace asks, the excitement in her voice from this afternoon now all but extinguished.

I gnaw irritably on my bottom lip as the rest of our family shrugs in disinterest, then shake my head and stand up.

“You know what, I’ll go get him.”

“No, if he’s busy…” my dad begins, but I cut him off.

“It’s after 5. The work day is over, it’s the weekend, he can come and spend some time with his daughter for Father’s Day.”

“Thank you, Ana,” Grace says, and she gives me a grateful smile that follows me out of the room. Once I’ve gotten upstairs though, and I hear Christian’s voice through his still closed office door, my conviction fails. I’ve been on the other side of a closed door with him countless time, and I know from experience that, if he’s not ready to be done, the only thing that waits for me on the other side is a fight. There are only so many weapons I have at my disposal, and as powerful as they can be, I’m well aware of the fact that Christian is always a worthy adversary. He has weapons of his own…

Nervously, I knock on the door.

“Yes,” he calls back, and slowly, I ease open the door. He looks up, his expression patient but definitely placating. “What is it, baby?”

“We’re all waiting for you.”

He sighs. “Well, don’t. I’ve got more here than I thought. I’m going to be working for awhile.”

“Christian…”

“Ana, I told you this weekend wasn’t a good idea. This is why. I have too much work to get done, I should be in the office today.”

“But you’re not.” I close the door behind me and move to his desk, purposefully placing myself between him and his laptop. “Come sit out on the deck with us. You’re stressed and you need to relax and take your mind off all of this for awhile. Maybe even get to play with some of your toys. I bet you could convince Elliot to pull out the jet skis.”

“You think?”

“It’ll be difficult, but if you ask really nicely…” He laughs, but shakes his head.

“You know I want to, baby, but I can’t. Go. Jet ski. Swim. Sunbathe. I’ll join you when I can.” He reaches up for my hips, like he’s going to move me out of his way, but I refuse to let him. Instead, I hop up onto his desk and reach back to close the lid of his laptop.

“What are you…”

“I just think that before you decide that you’re too busy to spend time with your family, you should know that I bought a new swim suit for this weekend.”

“Did you?”

“Mhm. Do you wanna see it?” His eyes move down to the deep v neckline of my sundress, and the cleavage he can see through it, but he doesn’t respond. I smile and slowly start to unravel strings around my waist that hold my dress together. His lips part and his mouth moves as though he’s going to protest, but can’t quite summon the words, so I lock eyes with him and purposefully bite down on my lip. Once I pull my dress open, he groans.

“It’s not much,” I say coyly, though I mean it in the literal sense. The small triangles of fabric that make up my bikini top are only just large enough to hold my breasts, and though they’re lined well, the crochet knit gives the illusion that it’s see through. There’s even less to my bottoms, which are held up only by the ties around my hips. I lift my legs and put them on each arm of his chair, ensuring that he can see just how little fabric there really is.

“Ana, what are you doing to me?” he asks, hungrily, eyes focused between my legs. I let out a soft, breathy laugh, then hook my fingers under the collar of his shirt and pull his lips to mine.

I have him instantly. I can feel it in his lips and the way his hands drag up my naked thighs. He groans into my mouth when his fingers tangle in the strings that hold my bottoms together, and I wonder if it’s because he’s thinking about how easy it would be to unravel them. To yank on one thread and watch it all come undone, leaving me open and exposed in front of him. It’s a thought I want to encourage, so I reach down and take the longest of the strings in my hand. Then I pull away from his lips and push the end the sting into his mouth. He clamps his teeth around it and leans back into the chair, untangling the knot as he moves. Once the strings release from around each other, he lets the end fall out of his mouth and the front of my bikini bottom falls limply onto his desk.

“Oops,” I say with false timidness.

“What are you doing to me?” he laments through gritted teeth. His entire face contorts with want, but he doesn’t immediately lunge for his prize.

“Five minutes,” I encourage him. “You could take a five minute break.”

“No, I really can’t.”

“Three then?” He slowly shakes his head back and forth, but since his eyes are still greedily taking in every inch of my exposed skin, I take a chance that he’s not serious. Again, I pull him into me and kiss him hard.

“Oh, fuck it,” he growls. “Three minutes. I can do three minutes.”

“Good.” With my feet pressed to the seat of the chair between his legs, I roll him back enough for me to get on my knees on the ground in front of him. He helps me undo his buckle and the buttons and zipper on his pants, too eager to let me do it on my own, and once I’ve freed his erection, his hands fists my hair and he pulls my  mouth down onto him.

I don’t waste time with cursory licks or kisses on the tip of his erection. I suck him hard and deep, swallowing over and over again so that he can feel the tightness of my throat. His head drops back with a gasp, his eyes close, and his hips thrust forward, pushing him deeper. I nearly gag around him, but I manage to stave it off by pulling in a deep breath through my nose. He pulls back and thrusts forward again, and I milk him with my cheeks. My tongue moves wildly around his shaft, massaging every inch that my lips aren’t touching with every single pass. It’s some of my very best work, but right before he’s about to blow, I pull back.

“Three minutes,” I tell him. “What a shame.”

“What? No, fuck that. Keep going.”

“Sorry.” I reach down and quickly knot the strings of my bikini bottoms around my hips again. “But you said you don’t have time to take a break, remember? Only three minutes. I can’t ask you to stop when you clearly have so much on your plate.”

“It’s fine,” he dismisses me. “I really don’t care about work right now.”

“Good.” I stand up and smile down at him. “Then why don’t you come join us out on the deck? I’m going to make dinner soon.”

“Ana!”

I lean down, gripping the the arms of his chair and holding my face half an inch from his. “Come spend time with your family, Christian. With me. And if you do that, then tonight, I’ll give you however many minutes you want.”

“This is coercion you know…”

“Yeah, sometimes your own medicine can taste a little bitter.” I turn and saunter back towards the door, making sure to sway my hips back and forth as I go to draw his attention, and just as I move past his desk, I let my dress fall from my shoulders to the ground so that he can get the full view of miserable job my bikini bottoms do of covering my ass.

“Now that won’t do,” I say, bending over to scoop up my dress and slipping into it once again. I’m very purposeful in the way I tie it closed, exaggerating each and every movement because I know it makes him think of how to undo it. But once the knot is in place, I smile and let my hands fall. “Gotta keep covered up. After all, my dad’s down there. What would he think?”

Christian’s hands curl into fists, probably because it’s the only thing he can do to keep himself from reaching across his desk for me, or possibly launching himself across the room and throwing me up against his office door, but I simply wink, turn away, and walk through the door.

I move slowly across our bedroom, and even more so through the passageway to the stairs. Any second, I expect strong hands to grab ahold of me and drag me back to the bedroom, but they never come. By the time I make it back to the deck where the rest of the family is waiting, my ego is a little bruised. I was sure that I would be enough to lure him away for awhile…

“No luck?” Grace asks, cuddling Kennedy on the sofa.

“No, he’s really busy,” I sigh in defeat. She nods, but I see a shadow of hurt cross her eyes before she looks down at the sleeping baby in her arms.

“Ana, come quick!” Kate shrieks, poking her head through the open door on the other side of the room. My brow knits together with worry as I rush over to her. She takes my hand, drags me out into the open sea air, and points excitedly out into the water.

“What?” I ask.

“Look!”

Off in the distance, I can see something black rolling over the waves. It’s hardly noticeable against the deep blue water, and I have to squint to be sure it’s even there. But as I focus on the moving thing, it pulls out of the water and I realize that it’s a huge tail.

“Oh my god!” I gasp, eyes widening. Kate squeals.

“There’s a whole pod of them, come look!”

Taking my hand again, she pulls me across the deck to the railing and we stare down at the water for any other sign of movement. But there’s nothing. No bursts of water from a blowhole or inky black bodies moving through the sapphire waves. Just a long, calm stretch of water that only breaks at the tree covered shoreline miles in the distance.

“They’ve got to be…”

“There!” my dad exclaims, pointing off into the distance. I turn and watch as an enormous whale breaches the water’s surface and falls back into a shower of glittering white spray.

“Oh my god,” I breathe in awe. My fingers curl around the edge of the railing as another whale leaps through the air, then another…

“Ho-see!” Calliope shrieks excitedly.

“No, baby,” a voice answers behind me, and my smile falters under the weight of my surprise. I turn around and see Christian standing a few feet behind us. He takes a few steps forwards and lifts Calliope out of Kim’s arms and brings her over to me so that he can hold both of us as we continue to watch the show just a few meters in the distance.

“That’s a Humpback Whale,” he tells her.

“No, ho-see,” she says stubbornly.

“Yeah, Christian,” Elliot says. “Don’t you know a sea-horsie when you see one?”

“That’s an actual animal, dumb ass,” Christian replies.

“Oh. Right.” We all laugh, except for Christian who leans down to kiss Calliope’s cheek before pulling me closer into him and staring out at the water contentedly.

“I didn’t think you were really going to come,” I admit, quietly enough that only he can hear me.

“Yeah, well… you were right. Work will be there Monday. This is happening right now.”

I smile and turn to pull him into a passionate kiss meant to express how happy I am to have him here and to reiterate the promise I made to him in his office, but before our lips touch, Elliot puts a hand between us.

“Alright, alright. We get it. You love each other and it’s adorable but those jet skis aren’t going to ride themselves. We’re burning daylight.”

“God forgive us our mortal sins,” Christian replies, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“God? No, no, Christian. You can call me Elliot.” He claps his brother on the shoulder before marching proudly across the deck, but Christian simply rolls his eyes and turns his focus back to me.

“Jet Skis?”

“Jet skis.” I confirm, and after we’ve each covered our daughter in a shower of kisses, we pass her off to Carrick and make our way down to the lower decks.

Next Chapter

 

Monday Update

update2b

Sorry guys, that brief reprieve last week turned out to simply be the eye of the storm. I had something big come in at the end of the week (for work) just as I was starting this week’s chapter that monopolized my time and has left me empty handed on Monday morning.

But if any of you happen to be on one of the health plans I do legal compliance for, you’ll be happy to know your health insurance benefits will be ready as of 1/1 (US readers only.)

Thank you for your continued patience, and I hope by now you all know that it bothers me to be late as much as anything 😦

Have a great week!

xoxoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

PS. I’m a horror movie whimp, so I haven’t seen Suspira but Bad Times at the El Royal and My Dinner with Herve were both excellent! See them if you can because Jamie and Dakota are going places.

 

Chapter 23

fifty-shades-darker

I can’t tell what feels heavier, my eyelids or my head in general. It’s been an incredibly long day, accomplished on an incredibly small amount of sleep, and the words of the manuscript I’ve pulled from my submission inbox are starting to blur together. We’ve been back in Seattle for five days, I’ve had four sessions with Flynn, and I’ve spent the past three nights tossing and turning or waking up in a cold sweat with Andrew Lincoln’s whispers still ringing through my head. Now that the flood gates have been opened, I don’t seem to be able to keep him out of my thoughts anymore. Or to stop myself from replaying that night in my head over and over again with such clarity that sometimes I feel like I’m still there. My nightmares are more vivid and terrifying than ever before. Drudging Lincoln up in therapy night after night is exactly as painful as I thought it would be. He seems to linger over me like a specter that I can’t escape. His shadow is everywhere, like the thick cover of clouds that persist over this city through the long, cold months of winter.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Grey?”

I jump slightly at the intrusion, then turn towards the door where Stevens stands with his knuckles still held against the metal door frame. His eyes aren’t focused on me, though. They’re pointed in the direction of the low groan and squeak from the newly placed chair in the corner of my office. Taylor turns away from the monitors on the desk in front of him and gives Stevens a once over.

Despite a very long discussion that lasted nearly the entire flight home, Christian fired Woods right after our return from New York.  I tried to argue that it wasn’t his fault he lost me at the hotel since I’d purposely sent him away so that I could get out undetected, but Christian can’t look past the fact that Woods didn’t even know I was missing until he got into my room, found it empty, and tracked Evan down to ask where I was.

You could have been kidnapped, he’d argued.

What if you’d been mugged or attacked in some back alley and left for dead? We wouldn’t even know you were missing until it was too late.

It’s a hard sentiment to argue when part of the reason I can’t sleep at night is the because of the time that very thing happened to me, but none of this was Evan’s fault and I made sure that even though he wasn’t with me, I planned everything that night exactly as Taylor would have. I wasn’t reckless or rash, I chose a public place where people knew I would be, and Luke was with me the whole time. But Christian was firm that he didn’t pay for security that could be thrown off with something as simple as, I’ll be fine, take the night off. So, while Taylor screen applicants for a replacement, he’s stuck with me.

“Come on in, Stevens,” I say, closing the open document on my computer and replying to the email it was attached to with a request for more pages. Taylor watches intently while he takes a few tentative steps into my office, but once he starts to settle down in the chair across from me, he turns back to the surveillance footage switching between Christian’s facility in Kent, GEH, my house, and the door to the street downstairs. I smile at Stevens to get him to relax. “I want to talk about your newest title.”

“I did everything you told me to do,” he says, immediately defensive. “You said follow the passion and my daughter loved Coburn’s first book. She was self published, she didn’t have representation for her next book, and I made her an offer. If that hasn’t panned out, then maybe what we really need to talk about is how your methods aren’t as great as you think they are…”

I take a deep breath, reach into the bin on the corner of my desk, and take out the report I pulled this afternoon. “I wanted to talk to you because it’s been twenty four hours since Coburn announced her book release on her website, and I have your pre-order numbers. I thought you should see them.”

His brow furrows as he reaches out for the paper in my outstretched hand, but as he starts to scan the data, the lines in his forehead smooth away and his mouth drops open.

“5,500?” he gasps.

“That’s right. Turn’s out your author had quite the following. You’re daughter’s not the only one who can’t wait for his next release.”

“But… but that’s more than The Black Rose.”

“Yeah, don’t rub it in.” He looks up at me again and, when I roll my eyes, his face breaks into a smile.

“You were right.”

“I’ll try not to let it go to my head.” He laughs and shakes his head with incredulity, but whatever he’d planned to say next is cut off when Taylor’s phone starts to ring and we both turn to look as he answers it.

“Taylor. Yes, sir.” Without a goodbye, he slips his phone back into his pocket, locks his system, and slowly rises from his chair. “Mrs. Grey, Mr. Grey is downstairs.”

An acrid taste creeps up into my mouth. Not because Christian’s here, but because of where he intends to take me. As difficult as my four solo sessions with Flynn have been this week, I know our joint session is going to be even more brutal. It’s one thing to have to relive your own trauma. It’s another thing entirely to have the person you love there to witness it too.

“Alright,” I breathe, thankful I manage to maintain my smile for Stevens’ sake. He hands the report back as he gets out of his chair and once I’ve filed it away again, I too lock down my computer and we all make our way out of my office.

“Thank you, Mrs. Grey,” Steven says, holding his hand out to shake mine. I glance down at it, then place my hand on the shoulder of his jacket instead.

“Call me Ana.” With a wink, I walk away and Taylor falls in line half a step behind me. He holds open the door to the GSP office, calls the elevator, and pushes the button for the ground floor while I send a quick text to Grace to ask how her afternoon with Calliope and Kennedy at the zoo went.

The air is cool and the shadows are long once we make it out of the building and I spot Christian’s car idling on the curb. Taylor keeps two fingers pressed against the inside of my elbow as he guides me across the bustling sidewalk and opens the passenger side door of the Maybach for me. It’ll be just Christian and I for the rest of the night, so I make sure to smile and thank him for today as I tell him goodnight and step inside.

“I don’t know, Grey…” a disembodied voice says through the speaker phone of the car. Christian silently reaches over to take my hand and kiss my fingertips, then signals his way back into traffic all without interrupting whoever it is he’s talking to. “This is my entire life’s work. I started building this company when I was twenty four years old. I’ve poured my blood, sweat, and tears into it.”

“I know, believe me. A business isn’t just products and profits, it’s years of sacrifices. It’s failures and it’s successes. It’s time away from your family and the things that you love. It’s your vision, and it’s not lost on me that your vision is what’s gotten you to where you’re at. I don’t want to take that from you, I want to partner with you. You and your team are just as valuable to me and my company as your technology.”

“So you’re telling me my people aren’t going to lose their jobs?”

“Sam, I’ve known you since I was sixteen. Your son went through YEC with me and you wrote the recommendation letter that got me into Harvard. You know me, and you know that I do not undervalue what your people do for this company.”

“Yeah… you’re right.” He sighs. “Alright, Grey. You’ve got a deal. I’ll sign the contracts and get them to your office before I get out of here tonight.”

“Great, I’ll make sure my assistant is there to receive them. We’ll talk soon, Sam.”

“Looking forward to it. Have a good night.” The phone clicks off, but Christian immediately pushes his finger back into the voice control button and instructs the system to call Ros.

“What can I do for you, mein Führer?” she answers.

“Charming, Ros.”

“Did you get the deal done with Eikhoff?”

“Yes, he should be sending the signed contracts over within the hour. Tell Barney he has thirty days to strip whatever we can use and integrate it into the system before we shuck the LLC.”

“Should I give HR a heads up for any transplants?”

“No, there won’t be any employee retention after 30 days.” My brows knit together and I blink over at him in confusion, but Christian’s eyes stay focused on the road ahead of us. “I’ll be unreachable for the next few hours. Andrea is waiting at the office for Eikhoff’s contracts to come in, so forward anything urgent to her and I’ll deal with it once I get home.”

“Alright. Enjoy the rest of your evening. Let me know if you happen to find $80 million dollars lying around anywhere.”

“Ros…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good bye.” The call drops again, but this time, Christian’s hand doesn’t move to the button on his steering wheel. He reaches over to me and takes my hand.

“I’m sorry, I really tried to finish up before I left the office but it’s been a brutal day.”

“Yeah, I got your Google Alert.”

“Google Alert?”

I pull out my phone, and swipe down on the screen so I can review all the notifications I’ve ignored throughout the day. “Emergency Crews Dispatched to Grey Testing Site.”

He frowns. “Great. As if I didn’t have enough on my hands with public opinion.”

His hand untangles from mine and he moves as though he’s going to make another phone call, but before he can press his finger into the Bluetooth button, I quickly reach out and cover it with my own fingers.

“What happened?”

“It was nothing really. Just a… malfunction.”

“Another explosion?”

“No, nothing that serious. The safety features programmed in after the last malfunction all worked fine. We just need to fine tune a little before we start testing again.”

I take a deep breath and gnaw on the inside of my cheek. Christian’s poker face is perfect, so I can’t tell whether or not he’s downplaying whatever it was that happened. But he pulls into the parking garage near Flynn’s office before I get the chance to question him further and my mounting apprehension over what we’re about to go through pushes everything else out of my mind. When he finds a spot and shifts the car into park, it feels like a giant rock drops into my stomach.

I pull in a deep breath of air, and slowly let it out through my lips.

“Hey,” he says, unbuckling his seatbelt and turning to face me. His hand moves across my cheek and into my hair. “How was your day?”

“Fine. Taylor got me the big pickle from the deli on Union St. this afternoon.”

“He’s a good man.”

“He is. But he scares the shit out of half the people who work for me.”

“Good.” I roll my eyes, and Christian uses the hand on the back of my head to pull me towards him. At first, I think it’s just going to be a quick, passing kiss because we’re in a parking garage and running late. But as I start to kiss him back, his hands move so that his thumbs rest across my jaw and he can coax my mouth open. Once my lips part, his tongue slides across mine in a slow, but sensual rhythm. The soft caress melts away some of my misgivings. It pulls me into him, clouds the parts of my mind that worry over the imminent breakdown I’m about to have in therapy, and gives me one last moment to just bask in the feel of him. There’s comfort in his kiss, from which I can draw courage.

“You ready?” he asks once we’ve finally pulled away from one another.

I nod, but the gesture is only marginally stronger than the whisper I’m able to conjure. “Yeah.”

“Then let’s go.” We climb out of the car, and immediately reach for each other as we make our way towards the elevator. His hand is warm in mine and imbued with a strength that is obvious even when he’s gentle. There are few things in the world that bring me solace the way that Christian’s hands do, and I remind myself of that fact as that very same hand moves to my lower back and he uses it to guide me through the door of Flynn’s office.

“Good evening, Mr. Grey,” Flynn’s receptionist greets us. Her purse is on her desk, and her keys are in her hand, so I guess that she was waiting for our arrival before she left for the night. With sure fingers, she picks up her phone, dials a four digit extension, and lets Dr. Flynn know we’re here. Once she’s set the phone back down on the receiver, she smiles and slings her bag over her shoulder. “He’s ready whenever you are. Go on in.”

“Thank you, Clara,” Christian says. He turns to me and leans down to kiss me on the forehead, then takes my hands and walks with me through the double doors.

Flynn is already in the padded armchair he usually occupies during our sessions, though he’s too distracted flipping through a bound stack of papers in his hand to do more than offer us more than a half-smile as a hello. I realize only after I’ve sat on the couch across from him and cuddled up against Christian’s side that the stack of papers he’s perusing is my manuscript.

“Oh good, you got past the first hundred pages,” I begin, though my attempt at a joke comes out weak and shaky. “That’s a good sign that it’s not unreadable.”

“On the contrary,” he replies. “I think the story is lovely. It’s well written, romantic, smart…”

“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”

He takes a breath, uncrosses his legs, and places the manuscript on the arm of his chair. When he leans towards me, his eyes glimmer with a kind of understanding pride that reminds me of my father. “It was shallow. And that’s fine, if that’s the story you wanted to tell. I really do think it’s well written. But I think you and I both know that this is not Escape. You poured your soul into that story. You took your pain, you laid it out, and you found a way to come out the other side through your characters. I felt that. This… I can’t feel you at all in these pages.”

“Focusing on the pain wasn’t what I needed when I wrote that. I thought it would be better to ruminate over love and… uh…” Words fail me, because they’re a lie, and I feel a rush of guilt. The truth is, he’s right. That book wasn’t the tool I used to work through what had happened me the way that I told everyone it was. It was an reprieve from it. An excuse not to think or feel. To lose myself in fantasy. The actual plot is so hastily thrown together and mechanical that I can’t even remember writing most of it. It isn’t filled with trauma, it’s a thing that exists entirely outside of it. Like a shield or dream.

“I couldn’t…” I whisper.

“Couldn’t what?” Flynn asks. My hand clenches Christian’s and I look over at him, holding my jaw painfully tight to keep my lips from trembling. He leans in close to me and rests his forehead against mine. The tips of our noses barely touch. I can feel his breath and the gentle, encouraging stroke of his thumb across the back of my hand.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, and after clearing my throat, I nod and turn back to Flynn.

“I couldn’t go through it again. I tried, but I couldn’t. Escape was incredibly painful to write, but I soldiered through because I wanted to. I wanted to think about Christian. I wanted to remember every second we had together and writing about him made me feel close to him when I was missing him more than I could ever admit to anyone. Writing about him gave me an excuse to love him from afar. It was worth it to have to relive the pain of what happened with Elena every single day to have that. But this is different. I don’t want to think about Lincoln. I don’t want to remember him and I certainly don’t want to feel close to him. He terrifies me and the only way I’ve been able to stop him from completely destroying me is to just take everything I feel about him and what happened, put it in a box, and pretend it didn’t happen. As long as I can do that, the box stays closed and he stays locked away.”

“That’s interesting,” Flynn says. “The box. Is that a visual technique for you? Putting your feelings away and pushing them aside?”  

I shake my head. “It’s a metaphor.”

“A metaphor for what?”

“I think of it like Pandora’s Box, the thing that holds all of the terrible things we’ve been through. Keeping them inside keeps them from overwhelming me. As long as the lid stays closed, I can keep myself stitched together so that I could be mother to my daughter. I can forget about the feel of him on top of me and his hands on my body long enough to be intimate with my husband…”

“Ana,” Christian says, shifting towards me and encasing me in his arms. It’s not a reaction I can control, but my body tenses and cringes away from his touch, and he releases me in an instant. I offer him an apologetic look, pleading for understanding with my eyes, then I look down at my hands and finish without facing either of them.

“Every time I talk about him, or even think about him, it’s gets harder to keep him inside.”

“And what happens if he gets out?” Flynn asks.

There’s a rattle inside of me, like a caged animal pitching and fighting against the metal bars of his prison. It makes my heart skip a beat. My chest gets tight. I have to concentrate to breathe normally. And a potent sense of dread moves over me like a total solar eclipse.

“Ana?” Christian encourages me.

“Then he’ll get what he wanted,” I reply, whispering through my constricted throat. “I can’t even tell you all the dark thoughts that went through my head right after it happened. I’m scared that if I let him out, he’ll overwhelm me and he’ll drag me down into the darkness with him until he destroys me.”

Christian shakes his head, then shifts and reaches over to rest his fingers against my jaw so he can turn my face to his. “No, he won’t. Baby, he can’t touch you. He can’t do anything to you. He is gone. You are safe. Calliope is safe. I’ve made sure of that.”

“You can’t hire security to protect me from him, Christian. The damage is done. The scars are already there.” My voice breaks, and I have to look up at the ceiling to stop the tears pooling in my waterline. “Sometimes it feels like everything that’s happened since that night is just borrowed time until the inevitable happens.”

“Don’t talk like that. Don’t let him do this to you. You are fine. You are here, with me, and life goes on every single day. You are an amazing mother, and you are absolutely everything to me. That is what is inevitable. Me and you. Lincoln is the past and we have so much to look forward to in the future.”

I nod, but return my gaze to my fingertips so he can’t see the hopelessness that still lingers in my eyes. It’s hard to hear the way he practically pleads with me to believe him, to see the desperate way he wants to make all of this better, and yet, to feel the same terror in my heart in spite of all of it. I want to be reassured by his words. I want to accept the safety he’s promised and return to the life I had before all of this happened. But I can’t. I don’t know how. And the longer Christian stares at me, trying to assure me that none of what happened matters anymore, the more the dangerous beast inside of me thrashes against his cage to prove him wrong.

I glance up at Flynn and find his eyes moving between the two of us with an interest that is more curious than diagnostic. He gives no sign that he has his own insights or sage words of wisdom to navigate us around this impasse.

“Aren’t you going to tell me that he’s gone and I can move on?” I ask.

“Will that help you?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m here. You’re the expert, remember?”

He uncrosses his legs, making the leather on his chair groan. “I think you’re giving Lincoln a lot of power, Anastasia.”

“Giving him power?” I repeat, almost in a gasp as I struggle to restrain my incredulity. “You weren’t there. You didn’t watch him walk over two bodies to take my daughter into his arms and have to sit there, helpless, and let it happen. You didn’t smell the smoke from the gunshots, or see Christian fall to the floor, or feel his blood pour out of his body with your hands. You didn’t have to hear him beg you to run, to leave him to die so that you could escape. You didn’t have to accept that you were about to be taken from your family and have unspeakable things done to you and that no one would be able to stop it. You didn’t have to be glad for it because you knew that the faster he got away with you, the faster he got away from Calliope and the faster someone would find Christian so they could save his life. That’s what I saw, and still see every time I close my eyes. In my nightmares, it’s still happening. All of that is inside of me and I can’t live with it. You can tell me I’m wrong for how I’ve handled everything since then, but I did what I did because I was drowning and locking down my feelings and going after the people I thought were a threat to my family was the only thing that made me feel like I could stop it.”

My voice breaks on the last word and I devolve into tears. Christian reaches forward to pick up the box of Kleenex from the table in front of us and as I yank two of the tissues free, Flynn picks up a notepad on his side table and jots down a few notes.

“I’m sorry,” I say, once I’ve regained control over myself again. He smiles and sets his pen down.

“Don’t apologize for your pain, Ana. It’s valid. I don’t mean to discredit what you’ve been through. You’re a survivor and whether it’s the violence or the sexual assault, you’ve experienced trauma that is clearly overwhelming for you. That’s normal. But I think your coping mechanism serves Lincoln more than it serves you.”

“I needed to feel in control of something. Finding the people who were involved with the conspiracy against Christian and making sure they couldn’t pick up where Lincoln failed made me feel like something real was being done. That it didn’t matter how long Carrick’s investigation was held up in city budgetary meetings, or that we had to fight to prove my father innocent when I watched Lincoln slaughter his own people right in front of us. I was protecting us, and as long as I could do that, I wasn’t unleashing Pandora’s Box.”

“But that’s exactly my point. I think you’re missing the key lesson the legend of Pandora’s Box is trying to teach, Anastasia.”

“And what’s that?”

“When Pandora opened her box, she released evil into the world, but do you know what she kept?”

“She didn’t keep it. She closed the box before it could escape…”

“But what was it?”

My lips mash together defiantly, but eventually I answer. “Hope.”

“Exactly. And it is hope that is all man has left to hold onto as we face the wickedness that she released. Hope is what stayed in the box, and so it is only hope that we have left. Putting Lincoln in a box isn’t locking him away, it’s holding onto him.” He reaches back to pick up my manuscript, then sets it on the coffee table between us. His eyes glow with warm encouragement. “I think you need to open the box.”

****

I leave the session in tears. Shaking. Needing Christian to hold me as he guides me past wondering eyes to the parking garage. It’s devastating, and not because Flynn has spent the last better part of our hour pushing me further past the walls I built around this than I’ve ever dared to let myself go before. It’s because I failed. I went as far as I could but just as we started to finally get somewhere real, I shut down. Something inside of me snapped close like a mouse trap and I wasn’t strong enough to pry it open again. I broke down into near hysterics and started hyperventilating. Even now, as Christian helps lower me into the front seat of the car, I can’t stop sobbing.

“I’m sorry,” I say, hiding my face in my hands in humiliation while tears continue to stream in hot, red streaks down my cheeks. He closes the driver’s side door behind him, then reaches across the center console and lays a flat palm over my back, dragging it slowly up and down the knotted line of my spine.

“Let’s get you home.”

I shake my head. “No. Can we wait a minute, please? I don’t want Calliope to see me like this.”

He nods and continues to rub my back in patient silence. His fingers trace soft lines up my neck and into the roots of my hair. He drags his hands through my long locks over and over again, each time letting the strands escape his gentle hold in a cascade of feather light touches over my back. With every pass, his touch soothes away the fear and the dread, until I regain enough control to choke back my tears.

“It gets easier,” he says. “After awhile, you say it so many times that it starts to lose meaning. It starts to feel like a recitation and you get further and further until eventually, you can say the whole thing aloud without wanting to run away from it.”

“Maybe I made it worse,” I choke out in defeat. “Maybe Flynn is right. Maybe putting him in a box really is holding on to him, and I’ve put so much into keeping him locked away that I can’t wrench him out anymore.”

His mouth opens, but words fail him. I can see an unnamed emotion shift uncertainly behind his eyes, and just before he answers, he lets out a long, burdened breath and nods as though he’s reassuring himself as much as he plans to reassure me. “Then maybe we can force him out.”

“What do you mean?”

His hand skims up to the side of my face, and his thumb brushes away the moisture from my cheeks. “Do you trust me?”

My answer is immediate and free of doubt. “Yes.”

“Then tell me your safe word.”

My brows knit together. We’re in a parking garage that’s still full and there isn’t much room for either of us to maneuver in the Maybach. He couldn’t possibly want to… not here…

“Red?”

“Is that a question?”

“Red,” I say more firmly. The hard knot in his throat moves as he swallows with determination and leans over to kiss my forehead.

“Remember that,” he tells me. Then he starts the car.

Pulling out of the parking garage, I assume that he’s taking me home to play out a scene similar to the one that got me out of bed all those months ago. But that proves to be wrong when he misses the turn for the street that would take us to the freeway. I stare through the window and examine the landmarks around us, trying to guess where he’s taking me. Once I figure it out, I wish I hadn’t.

“Christian, no!”

The low click of the turn signal doesn’t waver under my outburst and he navigates smoothly around the corner of Virginia Ave and into the parking garage under Escala. I grab onto the leather upholstery so hard my knuckles turn white. I’m beyond the point of shaking, I’m paralyzed. When the car stops, not a single part of me responds to the desperate cries of my brain to flee. Apparently fight or flight isn’t the only kind of natural panic response. My body chooses playing dead.

“We’re going to go upstairs,” Christian says gently, moving with the utmost care as he pulls the keys from the ignition and turns to face me again. I shake my head, though I’m not sure the movement is perceptible. “Your safeword is in play. If it becomes too much, you can leave at any time.”

“No, I can’t go up there.”

“This is the box, Anastasia. This is where you put him. You want to draw him out? Let him go? Come with me, and let me open the lid.”

I blink at him through wet eyelashes. “I can’t, Christian. Not here…”

“Yes you can. And I’m going to be with you the whole time.”

My fingers stay curled around the seat, and my limbs remain frozen. I feel completely inept. I can see his hope reflected in the smoky curls of his eyes and in the flushed part in his lips. But it changes nothing. I’m weak. Lost in grief. Afraid of a shadow that has a hold on me more real than I’d let myself realize.

And I hate it.

I hate that this is where I’ve ended up. I hate that this is what I’ve become. I hate every tear and every tremble of fear. I hate that it’s all because of him. That I’ve let him terrorize me to this point. That I’ve lost the girl who could face anything, who believed that good will always overcome evil in the end.  I hate that I’ve let him take her from me.

Christian’s right. This is how I take that back. I could go upstairs to where it happened and prove to him and myself that I’m not going to be weak anymore. That I am stronger than this. That I won’t let him have this power over me. That he can’t drag me down because I choose the light. I choose my family. I choose my life.

Except, I can’t move.

“Help me,” I whisper.

Christian tilts his forehead until it’s pressed against mine.  “Always.”

My heart thunders in my ears as he makes his way around to my side of the car and opens my door for me. His warm hand engulfs mine and pulls me up out of the car, into his side. I cling to him, breathing in his familiar masculine scent and letting it wash away my doubt and trepidation. In his arms, I can walk easily down the ramp to the lower level of the garage, but the second the elevator comes into view, my knees buckle underneath me.

“It’s okay,” Christian says. His hands tighten their hold on me, and my weight shifts onto him. He half carries me into the elevator, and when the doors close, I’m convinced I’d be on the floor if it weren’t for his support.

The voice that asks for the passcode sounds sharper than I remember. More sinister. The last time I’d heard it, I’d barely paid attention to it at all. I was too consumed with Christian’s wanton lips and touch to register something I’d reduced to background noise months and months before. But now that voice seems to echo through the small, enclosed space as though she were shouting. Christian enters a six digit code that I don’t even know anymore, and once I feel the shift of the clamps releasing and jolt of the car as it moves up the cable, I whimper and bury my face into his chest.

His arms twist around me like a protective barrier. I force myself to focus only on the feel of his lips on my hair, as though they have the power to erase everything around me. And maybe they do. It’s easier to silence the voice in my head screaming for me to turn around and to push down the rising panic from the depths of my stomach as long as I concentrate only on the gentle pressure of his kiss and the soothing words he whispers to me. I can even watch as the number over the door roll past until finally, they read 31 and a high ping sounds as the car starts to slow.

The doors roll back and Christian nudges me forward.

It’s cold in the foyer, which is different than I remember. This place had always been filled with the warmth of Christian that made it feel like home. But that’s gone now. There are no bright, welcoming flowers on the table in front of the elevator or inviting smells wafting in from the kitchen. There’s no golden glow from the chandelier or wink of flames in the fireplace just visible in the great room to coax me forward. Everything feels hollow, like an empty shell, and the echo of my heels over the marble as Christian pulls me further inside are punctuated by flashes of my memories of Andrew Lincoln’s footsteps ringing through my head so clearly I actually jump and look over my shoulder to make sure he’s not behind me. Once we get to the place under the arch between the foyer and the living room, my muscles seize and I can’t force myself forward any more.

“Almost, baby,” Christian encourages me. “Just a few more steps.”

“This is where she died,” I reply, my voice as empty as the room. I look down at the floor below my feet and recall the blood that pooled around our nanny as clearly as if it were still staining the immaculate marble. “This is where it started…”

“I know.”

I start to shake and the cold air of the room pricks at my lungs as though it’s full of needles. It’s dark, just like it was that night. But now that darkness feels ominous. Heavy, even. The apartment is filled with a tangible threat that makes the hair on the back of my arms stand up and has my heart thundering in my chest.  

“That’s where Luke got shot,” I say, nodding towards a spot only a few feet away. My eyes move into the living room, which is illuminated only by the moon and the lights of the buildings around us. It casts the sparse furniture in silver light that creates long, menacing shadows across the empty floor. The chair Gia had sat in that night is gone, but the couch she’d segregated Christian and I to while she cradled Calliope in her arms still stands in exactly the same place. “That’s where we were.”

“Yes.”

I look to the window, which has been replaced since that night as it had been shattered by a stray bullet. “That’s where Gia died, and Kommer. That’s where he grabbed me, and where you… where you…”

The words cut off as my throat gets tight and my lungs fail under the pressure. I pant and tighten my hold on Christian, worried my legs will give out. The room around me starts to spin, the corners of my vision darken, and a high pitched sound rings through my ears. But just before I devolve into a full blown panic attack, Christian turns me towards him and looks deep into my eyes.

“That’s what you see. Do you know what I see?”

My lips tremble around my response. “What?”

He moves me back a few paces, until I’m standing right over the place I’d fallen over Ava’s body.

“This,” he begins, “is the place I stood the first night you came here. After your very first session with Flynn when you wouldn’t let me touch you and you left without kissing me goodbye. I stood right here for a long time after I watched you leave. It was the first time in two years I let myself hope.”

“You did?”

“Yeah.” He tugs me forward a few paces, to where Luke had fallen. “This is where you were standing the night you came up here to get the key for your apartment downstairs. I was there, at the piano, and you stood right here in a black dress that hugged every curve of you in a way that made me want you so much it hurt. That was the night we made love for the first since you left me.”

I can picture the scene he describes perfectly. The way the moonlight highlighted the contours of his arms while his fingers moved with a skill I remembered oh so well over the keys of his piano. The way my tongue went dry at the sight of his bare chest and yearned to taste his skin. I can still hear the soft melody of the song he played.

I take a deep breath and, as I let the memory swirl through my mind, I find that it isn’t met with resistance.

Christian’s fingers lace tightly with mine, and when he walks forward into the living room, I’m surprised that my body doesn’t fight against him. My legs have regained their strength. My knees have stopped shaking. I move willingly and a small, but noticeable amount of the burden I’ve been carrying with me all this time falls to the floor and dissipates into the air like smoke.

“This is the couch I bought after you told me my empty apartment freaked you out,” he says, smiling now as he looks down on the white fabric with an almost longing kind of nostalgia. “And it’s the place I spent my first sleepless night up with Calliope. I sat there with her swaddled in my arms, praying she wouldn’t start crying again and wake you up.”

He moves again, to a few paces shy of the window.

“This is where we danced on my birthday the first summer after I got you back. Over there is where Kate sat when I showed her your engagement ring for the first time. We spent our wedding night right there in front of the fireplace. Up those stairs is where Calliope’s first bedroom was. That hallway leads to my office where I used to sit at my desk and dial your number every morning, praying you’d answer and give me the chance to fight for you. And down that way is first bedroom that was ever ours.” He stops and faces me again. His hands hold me with a tenderness that washes away the cold and once again lets me bask in the sunny heat of his love. Like that beach in the Maldives or the fireplace in the cabin in Vermont. Like the soft sheets and down comforter on the bed in the other room where I told him I wanted to be his forever. Where we committed ourselves to each other and let go of all of our hurt. He steps closer to me, his face hovering over mine so that his lips are a mere breath away. “This is the place we built our life together, Anastasia. That and the hundreds of other single, perfect memories we made here is what I see. He can’t touch that. And he’ll never be able to take that away from us.”

I take a deep breath and turn so that my back is pressed into his chest and my eyes can scan the room without caution. The memories we’ve made here together come back to me, slowly, like half forgotten dreams. I sat there, covered in blood, while Lincoln’s eyes hungrily devoured me from across the room. But I also sat there with Luke through countless movie marathons. With Kate and a glass of Chardonnay every time Christian went out of town. That’s where Christian made love to me before I left for my final year at Harvard.

I step out of his embrace and start to pace, focusing on each and every place in this apartment tainted by Lincoln’s memory and willing the happier times to overcome him. To drive him out. To make him disappear. And to my surprise, it works. I feel the burden of him lift away more and more with each happy memory that transcends him. But halfway between the wall of glass and the kitchen, I stop and my eyes find a crack in the marble floor. There’s a divot in the stone that’s been ground out and re-polished, probably by Elliot from when he and Kate lived here. I doubt anyone else would even notice it now. But I do. And I remember exactly how it got here. It’s what remains from the bullet that moved through my husband’s body and nearly took everything from me.

“What about here?” I ask, eyes fixated on the imperfection in the marble. “What happened right here?”

Christian slowly moves up behind me and places each of his hands on my exposed arms. I turn to look at him, waiting for his answer, but when it comes, it’s not what I expect.

“This,” he says, and he leans down to kiss me. His lips are gentle, as soft and inviting as they’ve ever been. His hands cradle my face and his body pushes into mine. I can lose myself in the silky brush of his tongue over my lip and the way it moves against my own once he’s granted access to my mouth. Then his hands move down and his nimble fingers work to undo the buttons at the front of my blouse. With three buttons left, impatience wins out and he yanks the remaining fabric apart, sending the last plastic rounds tinkling down across the floor.

I press my mostly exposed chest against his and kiss him harder. He reaches back to unhook my bra while my hands pull at the knot in his tie, loosening it just enough to pull out of his collar and over his head. It means our lips are forced to part, but the moment they do, he bends down for my breast. I groan and let my head fall back, pushing my nipple into his eager mouth while the tips of my hair dance languidly against the naked skin at the base of my spine. A ripple of pleasure moves over my entire body, leaving trails of goosebumps over my arms and the tops of my thighs.

“Christian,” I gasp when his teeth sink down into my over sensitive nipple. He eases the sting with the massaging suckle of his lips and a long lick of his tongue. Then he swivels his face back and forth across my breasts, into my cleavage, and begins to leave a wet trail of kisses down the shallow, defined line along the center of my stomach. Both hands move up to cup and knead my breasts, so once he gets to the waistline of my slacks, I quickly reach down to undo the fastening myself and shimmy them down my legs. When I begin to roll my panties over my hips, he looks up at me and his satisfaction over my eagerness is clear in his eyes.

It’s quite the scene. Me standing in the middle of the living room, drenched in moonlight. Exposed before the city. My panties stretched tight between my legs and Christian on his knees with his face between my thighs. But the most amazing part of it all is that that is all I think about. We’re standing in the middle of where it all happened, and as I look down into my husband’s eyes, I’m no longer standing over the place I almost lost him. I’m standing in the middle of our first home, indulging in the happiness that we’ve experienced here. Together.  

I grab onto his hair while I writhe over his tongue, and let the heat he draws out of me melt away the last of the anxiety still pulsating through me. I’m quickly and entirely absorbed in the feeling of his mouth pulling and sucking and massaging the most sensitive parts of me, and yet… there’s clarity too. Perhaps it’s levity. Perhaps it’s just distraction. But as the tides of a powerful orgasm begin to rise within me, I no longer feel the shadows of the apartment like living and menacing things. I find familiarity in the quiet, fortitude in the memories of the life we lived here, and solace in the pleasure of my husband’s mouth.

When my orgasm begins to fade and I come crashing back into reality, panting and shaking at the knees, Christian pulls me down to the floor with him and covers my body with his. His knees rest at my sides while he sits up to pull the half unbuttoned shirt over his head and fishes through the opening in his trousers to pull out his erection. I reach up and wrap my arms around his neck so I can draw him back down to me. Our lips meet. Our tongues entwine with each other. And then he slides home. All the way. Every single inch of him, in one slick motion.

“Oh god!” I moan, arching my back up off the cool, stone floor and into his naked chest. He takes hold of me, his strong hands pulling me tightly against him while he kisses me and nudges my legs further apart with his.

His eyes never leave mine. My body grips him with hot, wet friction that’s heaven and home all at once. My breathing comes harsher and harsher with each thrust, interweaving with the small cries and moans of pleasure that roll out of the deep parts of me that only he could ever reach.

There’s nothing left but him. The sound of his grunts and moans. The taste of his mouth and sweat beading over his skin. The smell of sex. The apartment, Lincoln, dark and terrifying memories… none of it matters. Not while I have him in my arms. Not while we still have this.

And in that moment, as welcome heat and pleasure starts to swell inside of me, I have an epiphany. All this time I’ve been afraid that, despite his death, Lincoln had still won. That he’d done enough damage to leave me mortally wounded and I would never recover. But this is what he wanted to destroy. The bond between Christian and I. And even after the deceit, the secrets, the fear, and the hurt… that’s the one the thing that came out of this undamaged. Because I love him as much today as I did before. More even. And as we lie over the place where the very worst had happened, making love with one another, he proves to me that he feels the same. That nothing has changed for him. That the shadows that feel so threatening inside these walls can’t touch what exists between him and I. And that is what protects me. Not Taylor. Not Woods. Not Luke. That is how Christian keeps me safe when no one else can.

He’s the keeper of my soul.

I cry out as I’m overwhelmed by a second orgasm and Christian tumbles right down after me, pushing as deep as he can while he pours his release inside of me. The release is cathartic. It takes with it all that’s left of my pain and leaves only my new found sense of peace.

When we eventually leave the apartment and make our way back home, the box is open.

Lincoln is gone.

And I am free.

Next Chapter

Author’s Note

Hello Readers! Please, gather round…

tenor

Everyone comfortable? Great!

My life has been hectic. I know in my last author’s note I promised that I would be back with a new update on October 8th, but that’s tomorrow and I’m just no where close to being finished with the next chapter. Not for lack of trying! I spent my entire Saturday this week locked in my home office trudging to get through this chapter and it just didn’t happen.

writing3

Part of it is because this is a very emotional chapter and it’s a little difficult to navigate through, which I think is something to look forward to, right??? But most of it is because my work load at my job has exploded in the last few weeks and hasn’t slowed down as I expected it to by the time this particular Monday rolled around. The chaos has made finding the motivation to do anything at night other than binge watching old seasons of Grey’s and eating entire pints of Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked literally impossible. Which unfortunately includes writing.

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Actual picture of me last Thursday night.

The silver lining is that, fearing my imminent mental break down, my best friend thought we needed a weekend at La Push to unplug, be unreachable, and de-stress. That’s right Twilight fans, in real life that cell phone Edward gave Bella for when she was with Jacob would have been utterly useless because there is no cell service on the reservation. I assume because of werewolf magic.

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To be clear, I’m #TeamEdward

(Christian 1.0)

And since my weekend away will mean fewer days to finish the next update as well, I’ve decided that it’s best not to post mid week and get off my normal routine and simply delay posting chapter 23 until October 15. I know, I suck. And I’m sorry. But it looks like chapter 23 is going to be a long one so hopefully that counts for something? IDK… but I did want to let you guys know in advance not to wait for an update and that I really am sorry to leave you high and dry two weeks in a row. If it makes any of you feel better, I had to watch the Seahawks lose to the Rams today, so Karma is alive and well.

Have a great week everyone! I’ll be thinking of you from the ocean!

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xoxo

WishingMrGreyWasHere

Chapter 22

50shades

I don’t notice that we’re travelling without security until we’ve reached our destination. The expensive looking sports car Christian helped me into at the hotel didn’t feel out of place despite the fact it could only accommodate two. I guess I assumed our security team would follow us in the SUV, but when we make it to the venue for Daves’ party, no one meets us at the entrance of the building.

“Where are Taylor and Woods?” I ask after we’ve stepped into the elevator and Christian has pressed the button for the rooftop bar.

“We don’t need them,” he says curtly. “You’re with me.”

I stare blankly back at him, unsure of how to react. This is the man who was so concerned about my safety that he’d assigned me a security detail for years without my knowledge. He hired three CPOs to be with me at all times just last year. Some of our worse fights have been over my disregard for their necessity…

And then I remember what he said to me last night.

I can protect you, Anastasia. Better than Sawyer. Better than anyone.

I hang my head, my worst fears confirmed. Nothing was resolved last night after all. We’re not fine.

“Christian, I’m sorry about Luke,” I tell him for the dozenth time. “I really do–”

“Stop,” he interrupts me, keeping his eyes focused on the steadily rising number over the door. “Not here.”

My breath catches, almost as if the chill is enough to freeze the air in my lungs. Nervously, I start to chew on my bottom lip, thinking  about his promise back at the hotel. His darker, kinkier predilections have always excited me. Enticed me. Turned me into a carnal creature not only willing, but actually desperate to do anything and everything for his pleasure. For mine. But as I taste the energy flowing between us, I find that my excitement is overcome by something else.

Anxiety.

“Christian…” I begin, but the moment his name crosses my lips, he’s on me. I feel the wall of the elevator at my back in the same second his lips come crashing down on mine.

“Did you doubt him, Anastasia?” he snarls into my mouth. “When you let him take you away from my security team to confront people who could be our enemies, who could want to hurt you? Did you worry where Woods or Taylor were with him?”

The words are an accusation, but my body is too consumed with his touch to pay any mind to his vaguely threatening tone. He’s planned it that way. He can play my body as adeptly as he plays the piano, and he uses that against me. His teeth pull at my bottom lip too harshly, and when I whimper, he soothes the bite away with a deep, soft kiss. His hands dig into me one second, then massage me the next. The juxtaposition of pain and warm pleasure create a reaction inside of me that I can’t control. My senses are heightened, my skin more sensitive, and the muscles between my legs clench with sweet anticipation. He knows my body better than even I do, and I’m putty in his capable hands.

I take a shaky breath. “You can protect me, I know that.”

“Good.” Soft fingers trail up the side of my arm and tug lightly at the sleeve of my dress. “I’m very aware of what’s under here and I want you to know that I’m thinking about it. I will be, all night. While you schmooze and mingle, I’m going to be standing by your side, holding your hand, and imaging what it’s going to look like later when it’s covered in my come.”

Holy fuck.

The elevator pings and the car slows to a stop. Christian leaves one last, chaste kiss on my lips, then takes my hand as the doors pull open and leads me out into the cool June night, not even giving me a chance to catch my breath.

I press my lips together as we meld into the crowd and try to shake away the kinky, sex-tinged thoughts that seem to fully occupy my mind. It’s difficult. My breasts are bare against my dress, so every slip of the soft fabric caresses my nipples, and the tightness of the straps wrapped around my body feels too much like bondage for me to forget.

Stay focused, Ana. You can do this.

 

The party is beautiful. There’s just enough light to illuminate the trees against the outer perimeter and make navigating the crowd of tables and people manageable. The bar is busy, the music is good, and the city looks down on us from every direction. Daves is standing on a podium near the railing, delivering the speech I listened to him give at least fifty times over the last few days.  

“There she is,” I hear Scott whisper with relief. Christian and I turn in his direction and find him standing off to the far side with Carmen and a few people I don’t recognize, but who I assume work in the New York office. I nod in their direction and as Daves’ speech comes to a close, Christian leads me toward them.

“Carmen,” I say, reaching out to shake her hand first. “Great party.”

“Yeah, it didn’t turn out so bad.” She smiles back, then turns to Christian. “And you brought Grey. I didn’t realize you were in town.”

“Last minute trip,” he replies. “You look great, Carmen. As always.”

“Awh, flattery is not going to make me forget that you stole ‘Sure Connections’ right out from under me this week. That one stung, Christian.”

“Business is business. You know that.”

She sighs, but nods. “So I suppose now that you have connectivity under control, you’ll be expanding your state project off the west coast?”

“Yes, but not with ‘Sure Connections.’ Their technology is slow and outdated. I plan on stripping it’s resources and selling what I can.”

“What? Sell it? You fought me for SC for six weeks, Christian!”

“And you told my wife that I asked you not to hire her. You had to know I wouldn’t let that slide.”

The indignace on Carmen’s face vanishes, replaced by blank shock. Her mouth actually drops open and it takes her several seconds to recover. When she does, her back goes straight and her deep brown eyes turn black. It’s a look I’ve seen before, the carefully controlled sense of power. The CEO. And it’s mirrored on my husband’s face right now.

“What do you want for it?” she asks.

Christian smiles. “You know what I want, Carmen.”

“Not going to happen, Grey.”

“Well…” He shrugs. “Enjoy your weak signal output.” Carmen rolls her eyes and takes a drink from her flute of champagne, while I scramble for a way to erase the animosity building between them.

“Christian, have you met Scott?” I ask, grasping at straws. “He’s my New York counterpart.”

“Yes, I’ve heard,” Christian says. Scott grins and takes his outstretched hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grey. Ana here has told me so much about you, I feel like we’ve already met.” His gaze shifts to me. “You sure are a lucky man.”

“Yes. I am.” Christian takes a step closer to me, wraps his arm around my waist, and kisses my hair. To the casual observer, it might have been an innocent show of affection, but I know better. It’s a claim, which may not fully resonate with Scott, but it does with me. And suddenly my mind is filled with the images he’d conjured back in the elevator. The same images he promised would be going through his mind all night. When I turn to look at him, I can see the promising glimmer in his eyes that tells me he’s kept his word.

“I’m glad Ana was able to drag you out tonight,” Scott continues, oblivious to our silent exchange. “I know how hard it is to get Emily out to these kinds of things. She thinks they’re dull.”

“It’s a party for a book that’s not even out yet,” the woman standing on Scott’s right says. “No one’s even heard of The Black Rose before.”

“But they will,” Scott says, through clenched teeth. “Things have to be built before they blow up.”

The woman shrugs and takes another sip of her drink, looking bored, while Scott takes a deep breath. I look between the two of them with confusion.

“I’m sorry. Do you work at GSP NY?”

“Oh, god no,” Scott answers for her. “This my wife. Emily, this is Anastasia Grey. From Seattle.”

“Wife,” I repeat, hoping the word doesn’t sound as shocked to everyone else as it does to me. She gives me a tight smile and holds out her hand.

“It’s good to put a face to the name,” she says. “Scott talks about you all the time.”

“Does he?” Christian asks.

“Of course,” Scott says. “Ana here has made quite the splash at Greenwich. You should be proud.”

“Very proud. My wife is the most incredible woman I know.” Christian turns to me and brushes my hair from my shoulder. His hand trails down my back, lower and lower… down to what’s his. And with the slight, but noticeable, emphasis he put on the word ‘wife’, I can’t help but think to myself that he might as well have just peed all over me for all his efforts to mark his territory.

“I’m going to get a drink,” he says. “Thirsty?”

His hand begins tracing over my behind, and the fabric of my dress is just thin enough that I can tell the pattern isn’t random. He’s tracing letters. M-I-N-E. Over and over again.

I can’t tell if it’s a declaration, or a promise.

And I can’t tell which of those possibilities it is that’s making my knees feel weak.

“Yes,” I croak, then clear my throat to hide my hoarse response. “Please.”

He smiles. “Don’t wander off.”

I nod, but his eyes stay fixed on Scott as he walks away. Scott smiles back, though I’m not sure if he’s trying to be friendly, or taunting him. Either way, he’s biting off more than he can chew with Christian. I’m still trying to swallow what he’s given me just tonight.

Christian. Swallow. Lingerie. Shit!

Focus, Ana!

I take a deep breath and turn to Carmen, who also watches my husband walk away, though with a different kind of interest.

“I’m sorry about that,” I tell her. “If I had known that you two were… I wouldn’t have brought him.”

She smiles and lets out a small, patient laugh through her nose. “Don’t worry about it, Ana. I knew who you were when I hired you, and despite the optics, Christian and I are actually old friends. He’s ruthless, but so am I. And I know that what goes on between GEH and GC has nothing to do with your value at GSP. In fact, I wanted to offer you my congratulations. I saw your numbers for your branch’s latest release. It’s outstanding.”

I smile. “Thank you. But I have to give the credit to my team. Jacki has worked extraordinarily hard on this project and I think we’re seeing that reflected in sales.”

“Well whatever you’re doing, keep it up. We might just have to bring some Seattle to New York, right Scott?”

“Absolutely.” He tips his glass in my direction and I immediately begin to analyze his tone and body language. Never before has he been able to accept Carmen offering me praise without some sign of bitterness or resentment, but this time… he actually seems genuine. Maybe our talk this afternoon was real. Maybe he really does want to move forward as partners. Maybe I was overreacting back in the office.

Except I can still feel the heat of Christian’s MINE on my behind…

“Here, baby,” Christian says, coming up behind me and offering me a flute of champagne. I take a sip and am surprised. Normally, the champagne at these kind of parties is watered down and dry, but I find that, in this case, I enjoy the crisp flavor as much as the feel of the bubbles tickling my tongue.  

“Delicious. Thank you, my love.”

“Of course.” He pulls me close and lowers the volume of his voice so that only I can hear him. “If I were you, I’d drink that quickly and get another. You’ll need it later.”

“Will I?” I ask, but he doesn’t return my playful tone. His eyes cloud over. “What?”

“Nothing.” He turns me so that his back is to Carmen and Scott, and I’m shielded from their view by his body. “I was just thinking about holding this glass to your nipples and watching them harden through that dress.”

He tilts the glass towards me, but I hold my fingers up to keep the cool glass away from the silk fabric over my breasts. “The scene isn’t supposed to start until after we’ve left. You’re not playing fair, Christian.”

“I never do.” He cocks his head to the side, and blatantly stares down at my chest as if he’s mulling over a complicated decision. “Maybe instead I’d pour champagne over them and clean it away with my tongue…”

“Christian.” Again, the muscles deep inside me clench, and his face breaks into a victorious smile.

“Look at that. It seems I don’t need the glass after all.”

I look down to see the outlines of my hardened nipples through the fabric of my dress, and groan. This damn bra!

“Fuck!” I hiss, and Christian takes my chin in his fingers.

“I don’t want to stay long.” I nod and drain the champagne still in my hand, but when I turn for the bathrooms, he stops me and hands me a small wooden box. “Take this with you.”

“To the bathroom?”

“Yes.” His voice is firm and even though I meant it when I told him the scene hadn’t started yet, I react to the command as if we were already in our a room alone and he had me on my knees.

“Yes, Sir,” I whisper back, then tuck the box into my purse and weave my way through the other guests to the bathroom.

I figure the best bet for my sensitivity problem is to just fill the openings in my bra with tissue paper to create a barrier between my nipples and dress, but the fabric is too thin for even a single layer of tissue to go unnoticed. The bathroom is empty besides me, a miracle for a party this size, so after several minutes deliberation, I do the only other thing I can think of, despite how humiliating it will be if someone walks in. I press the button on the hand dryer, and dip my breasts below the warm bursts of air.

By the grace of god, I get away with it.

Once I’m sure that the dress situation is under control and I’m not going to walk back out into a party filled with Gallagher Corporation execs looking like Jennifer Aniston in a season five episode of Friends, I pull the box from my bag and ease back the hinged lid.

Two silver balls connected by a small, black string lie on a bed of velvet and just the sight of them makes me wish I had a spare pair of panties.

The first time I wore these was on a jet ski in the middle of the sound, and they’d wound me up so tight, I practically dragged Christian to our bedroom to have my way with him. The second time was Paris…

My train of thought stops.

Paris.

God, what I’d give to be in the place now that we were then. Before the lies. Before the hurt. Before I had to wonder what his intentions were when he got me alone. Truthfully, I shouldn’t worry. I know that. He’s never given me reason to worry before and he’s not the one who’s changed here. I have. I’m the one who got us here and I’m going to have to be the one to get us out.

With shaking fingers, I reach into the box and remove the balls. I shouldn’t wear them. I’m already wound up so tightly I could explode, and I still have to get through the rest of this evening before he takes me back to the hotel and fucks me six ways from Sunday. But if we’re going to move forward, he needs tonight. He needs to control me. And this is part of that.

I grip the balls tightly in my hand, and duck into the closest bathroom stall.

 

The party is in full swing when I emerge from the restroom. Daves corners me on my way back to Christian and asks to introduce me to several of his author friends, most of whom express to me over and over again their disbelief that Walter got the Anastasia Steele to represent his title. There are a few critics and journalists in attendance who ask about my next book, but I easily divert their questions back to The Black Rose. By the time I’m able to escape, Scott and Emily have already left, Christian and Carmen have retreated to a table near the bar, and the balls inside of me have done their job so well, I don’t know that I’ll make it back to the car, let alone our hotel room.

“I’m just surprised,” Carmen says as I approach and pick up the extra glass next to my husband. “I didn’t realize you were so passionate about clean energy.”

“I’m passionate about innovation. This isn’t just about clean energy, it’s about unlimited energy. Accomplishing what was previously thought to be impossible.”

“Oh I know your line, Christian. Your media blitzkrieg has made it all the way to New York. You’re really putting in the hours to get people to buy into this stuff.”

“That’s my PR team. This project is so much more expensive than we anticipated and the only way I’m going to be able to continue funding it is if I’m able to get the Mayor and city council to sign off on significant tax breaks. To get that, I need public support.”

“And a father in the Mayor’s office.”

“Ah, if only it were that easy.”

Carmen laughs and takes another drink. “Well, I think it’s a noble idea, but I also think you’re an idiot.”

“Really?”

She nods. “Don’t you realize what will happen if you pull this off? Eliminating the need for combustible fuel will eliminate the need for the corporations who make that their business. The Saudis, Exxon, BP, Halliburton… You prepared to take them on too?”

“I’m not worried about oil companies.”

“Don’t let your confidence in the technology make you a fool, Christian. This won’t be like stealing a tiny fiber optics company from me. These people will come for you, by any means necessary. Just a few years ago, there was a man named Howard Cook who used to run a company out of LA that focused on clean, renewable energy. He even got a patent approved by the USPTO. But right before he was able to start production, he was indicted for fraud and his company was torn apart and sold for pieces. Who do you think paid for the lawyers to investigate him?”

“Sinopec, 2011. And the technology his company patented was bought by Chinese oil barons, who have invested millions into keeping it buried. I know all about Howard Cook. He was clown and I won’t repeat his mistakes.”

“Alright, if you’re sure. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Oh, believe me, Carmen. I’d never accuse you of not offering unsolicited advice.” She laughs, and Christian empties his glass before turning to me. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” I practically beg. Carmen smiles as Christian places his hand on my lower back and, after a brief goodbye, he leads me back through the party towards the elevators. I do a quick scan of the crowd for Walter and find him laughing and toasting before a crowd of admirers. Our eyes meet and I’m able to give him a very proud smile before stepping into the elevator.

The moment the doors close, Christian’s arms wrap around me from behind. “And now…” he says, his low, seductive voice trailing off as he leaves a trail of kisses down the slope of my neck. I hum my pleasure back to him, and push my body into his, relieved to finally be here. The soft touch of his lips and the heat of his breath on my windchilled skin make the ache between my legs unbearable. I no longer feel the chill of the night air, my body is flushed with heat.

“Christian,” I say in a soft, needy breath.

“My love?”

“What were you and Carmen talking about?”

His lips don’t stop as he replies, and his hands continue to move freely over my dress. “The fusion project.”

“I know that. I meant, about people coming after you…”

“No one is coming after us, Anastasia.”

“But that man, the one the oil companies came after?”

“They found proof he was overstating company profits and defrauding investors. That’s not going to happen to me.”

“Just because you haven’t committed fraud doesn’t mean they won’t find another way to come after you.”

“And I’ll be ready.” His hand slides up my stomach to cup my breast and my head lolls back on his shoulder as I’m flooded with endorphins.

“You’d tell me if there was anything to worry about, wouldn’t you?”

He lets out a harsh sigh and his hands fall away from my body. I turn and watch him back into the wall and place his hands on the railing. The lust in his eyes has been extinguished, replaced now with irritation, and I don’t understand why.

“I just want to know,” I tell him. The elevator jolts as it stops on the bottom floor, and once the doors slide open, Christian pushes off the back wall to exit.

“Well there’s nothing to know.”

He stalks past me, leaving me to follow behind in his angry wake. He hands the ticket for our car to the valet and then leans against a pillar to check emails on his phone. He doesn’t even so much as look at me the entire time we wait, and the car is silent after we’ve pulled through the drive and out into Manhattan traffic.

“I wasn’t going to do anything,” I say, staring at my hands. “If that’s what you’re worried about. I told you I was done with all the scheming and I meant it.”

“You really think that’s the part of this that’s driving me crazy? You don’t think I understand going to extremes to protect our family?”

I shake my head with dismay.  “I told you I was sorry about Luke. I shouldn’t have been sneaking around with him behind your back, and I wish I could take that back, but I wasn’t unfaithful to you, Christian. You have to believe me…”

His jaw twitches. “Tell me he’s nothing and all is forgiven.”

“No it won’t, because it would be a lie and you know it.”

“Then pick up your skirt.”

“What?”

“Pick up your fucking skirt, Anastasia.” His eyes flash to me, a menacing warning, and I hurry to reach down for the hem of my dress. My body slides down in the seat so I can lift the fabric up over my hips, leaving my barely there panties exposed.

He reaches down between my legs and presses on my clit through the lace. It moves the silver balls back and forth, and I clench. Another press, and I gasp. He repeats the motion over and over again until I’m soaking wet and ready to come, but just before I do, he hooks his fingers under my panties, reaches inside of me, and pulls the black string so that the balls slide out of me and into his hand.

The promising heat vanishes the second they’re gone.

“Clean these,” he says, dropping them into my lap. I look around for a napkin or handkerchief, but find nothing.

“With what?”

He looks over at me, and his eyes move down to my lips. I swallow and look down at the glistening silver spheres in my hand. He watches intently as I slide the first one into my mouth, tasting myself on the metal. I suck hard and swirl my tongue over the smooth surface, then do it again with the second one.

“Good girl,” Christian praises me as I hand the balls back to him. He tucks them into the pocket on the inside of his tuxedo jacket, and I turn to look through the windows, hoping to see some landmark that will give me an idea how close we are to the hotel where I’ll finally get the release that was just robbed from me.

“Wait… This isn’t the way back to the hotel.”

Christian shakes his head. “No, it isn’t.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” I frown and turn to look out the window at the passing buildings and side streets I’ve never seen before. We drive out of the business district, then the residential areas… Traffic soon thins out until it’s almost non-existent. When we finally pull over and Christian takes the keys out of the ignition, the block we’ve ended up on is completely deserted. It’s not the kind of place I would imagine Christian choosing as a destination. There are no restaurants, hotels, or bars. Not even a dive. Most of the businesses on the block seem to be boarded up, except a bail bondsman a few doors down from where we’re parked, and a pawn shop across the street.

“Don’t move,” Christian tells me.

He climbs out of the car and I turn in my seat so I can watch him walk around to my side. When he opens my door, I take his hand and let him pull me out onto the sidewalk, but while his fingers stay entwined with mine, he doesn’t move. I jump slightly at the sound of the car door slamming behind me, and the resulting echo up the deserted street, while Christian steps close to me, his body only just not touching mine.

“Mmm,” he hums with contentment, sliding his hands over the sides of my neck and up into my hair. I can feel his heat wash over me when he leans down and presses his lips to mine with a warm affection that feels familiar and comforting in contrast to everything that’s happened between us over the last twenty-four hours. I move my hands up over his arms to trace the lines of his biceps, which are stark and impressive under my fingertips even through his jacket. There’s an undeniable, yet dormant strength to every line on his body. A  tantalizing and sensual juxtaposition to the gentle touch of his hands and lips that bring goose bumps to the surface of my skin. “I love you, Anastasia.”

“I love you too,” I breathe back, entranced by the feel of his lips still brushing ever so lightly against mine. He smiles, then takes my hand again and tugs me towards the double doors directly behind us. There’s lettering on the glass that’s too peeled and faded for me to read, and the small entryway inside is flooded in florescent light that highlights the yellowing linoleum floors. We step through one more door that’s heavier and closes with a loud clunk, then make our way to a desk on the other side of the room. There’s a woman sitting there, seemingly so engrossed in whatever she’s typing that she doesn’t even look up as we approach.

“Good evening,” Christian says.

Her eyes move up, but her fingers don’t stop. “Do you have an appointment?”

“Odysseus.” She nods and looks back down at her computer screen again, and while we wait, I find myself pondering Christian’s response. Odysseus. The Greek king whose epic journey to get back to his love after being torn away by war is quite literally the stuff of legends. And Penelope, the wife who remained faithful to her king despite her many suitors. I’m not sure if the comparison is comforting or worrisome.

What is this place?

“Ah, here you are,” the woman says, and instantly her cold, aloof demeanor vanishes. She smiles when she looks up at us and finally pulls her fingers away from her keyboard. “You’ll just go down this hall, through the door at the end, and down the stairs. They’ll take your key there.”

“Thank you,” Christian says, and again, he takes my hand and tugs me away. There’s nothing in the hall he leads me down that offers any clues to where we’re going, but I assume it’s something big when we go through the door and find a hulking man waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs.

“Key,” he grunts. Christian reaches into his pocket, removes an intricate, golden skeleton key, and passes it to the man, who I can only assume is some kind of security or bouncer. He slides the key into the lock on the door, and turns it with a click. Christian moves me in front of him as he opens the door and I take a bracing breath before step inside.

The first thing that hits me is the music. It’s low, but bass heavy. Not something I would associate with anything on the radio, which makes me think Christian hasn’t brought me to a trendy nightclub. The room is fairly dark, illuminated only by different colored strobes and spotlights that seem to create just as many shadows as they eliminate. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, but when they do, I go numb.

I never saw the inside of Kink back in Seattle, but I’ve thought of it enough that my mind has created a whole picture for me. I’d imagined stone walls with wooden furniture meant to restrain a submissive rather than make her comfortable. I thought the room would be lined with devices for torture and pleasure I wouldn’t be able to name. I believed that it would feel skeezy and predatory. The room before me, is none of that.

It could be an upscale lounge. The main floor is set up like a grid. Each seating area makes up a square about ten feet long by ten feet wide, and the smooth, black leather sofas they contain are recessed into the ground. The white stone walkways between each section reflect the lights moving over them well, adding color and a sense of whimsy to the overall ultra modern design. There’s a bar at the back that is illuminated so that it glows like ice. Nothing here seems vastly different from the club I was in the night before, except the people.

Everyone here is in various states of undress. Full suits, pleather bodysuits, lingerie, and several women who are completely nude. In many of the booths, there are people actively having sex while their neighbors carry on conversations over martini’s as if they’ve simply found themselves here with friends after a long day of work and there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on around them at all. There’s one particularly intense orgy taking place off to our right, but when I look away my eyes fall on another couple performing something I imagine to be very painful in front of two enraptured audience members.

“Don’t stare,” Christian whispers into my ear. “Watching is participation and only those who have been invited are allowed to participate.”

“How do you know about this place?”

“You think you’re the only one with Gresham’s phone number?”

I shake my head, grateful to know he didn’t come here with Elena. “No, I guess not. But, you’re not going to… not in front of all these people. Are you?”

“Voyeurism is not my thing, Anastasia. What is under this dress is mine, and mine alone.”

“So, what are we doing here?”

“There are private rooms in the back.”

“Good evening.” We turn and find a woman in a tight black dress smiling at us. Her makeup is overdone, but in a beautiful way. With her black hair piled on top of her head and her exaggerated black eyeliner, she looks like she’s just walked off a photo shoot for a pinup calendar. “Welcome to Sadique. Your room is ready, if you’ll follow me.”

Christian nods, then leans in as the woman turns to lead us past the bar. “Walk behind me.”

I take a step back and fall in place a pace behind him. There’s so much to look at all around me, but I force myself to stare at Christian, or down at our intertwined hands. A hundred questions bounce around my mind as we’re led down a dim hallway lined with doors in the same way as a hotel, but only one seems to stick.

What is he going to do?

“Alright, before you go in, I just have to get a statement of consent from both of you,” our guide tells us. “Do you acknowledge that anything that takes place in this room is fully consensual and that you haven’t been coerced into coming here tonight against your will?”

“Yes,” Christian says first.

“Yes,” I repeat.

“Good. Then I’ll leave this with you.” She hands Christian a key that’s similar to the one he used to gain entry to the club before. “If you need anything, just press the green button by the door and one of our staff members will assist you. Play safe, you two.”

She smiles as she moves past us, but Christian doesn’t wait for the clacking sounds of her heels to disappear up the hallway before he reaches down to unlock the door.

“Ready?” he asks, hand on the knob. I nod through my mounting nerves and hold my breath when he pushes the door open and steps to the side to let me pass.

This room is everything I imagined Kink to be. The walls are deep red instead of stone, but all the tools are in place. The room smells of fresh leather, so I assume everything here is new, but that also means that everything here is at Christian’s disposal. The belts. The whips. The rack of canes. There are metal instruments with sharp edges and clamps that make me cringe with pain just looking at them. Will he use those?

“Make yourself comfortable,” Christian says, walking past me. “There’s a bathroom there if you need it.”

“Are you going to punish me?” I ask, and he stops. He turns back to face me, but his expression is unreadable.

“Yes,” he says at last.

I start to chew my bottom lip. “Are you going to hurt me?”

“Do you think that’s something I would do?”

“I hope not.” The words seem to tremble as they cross my lips, but they have no effect on softening Christian’s expression. If anything, he turns colder. His eyes darken and his body grows stiff. Nervously, I suck my bottom lip beneath my teeth and look at the ground, wondering if my hasty confession will expedite the punishment he’s brought me here to deliver. When he steps towards me, I even jump slightly, but he doesn’t put his hands on me. He moves past me, fishes out the key again, and locks the door. With a sigh of relief, I turn my eyes back to the ground.

And that’s when I feel his touch.

The long fingers of his hand wrap around my arm and yank me back. I gasp as I fall into the door, expecting pain that never really manifests, then cower under him as he pins me to the wall. He grabs onto my jaw and tilts my head up so that I’m forced to look at him, and I see fire burning behind his eyes.

“This is why we’re here,” he growls. “Because you think there is even a possibility think I would hurt you. Because you must believe there is anything in this world that you could think or feel that I wouldn’t understand or that I would despise you for. Because it seems to me that no matter what I say or what I do, you still don’t trust me. You don’t communicate with me. And that’s not going to fly in here.”  I nod, though it’s difficult with his hand still on my face. He must feel that, because in that same instant, his fingers relax, his hand falls to his side, and leans down to press his forehead against mine. “You were unfaithful to me, Anastasia. Not with your body, but with your soul. You gave another man your truth and your fears, and that’s not something I can easily forgive. So, tonight, you’re going to submit to me. You’re going to place your trust in me, and you’re going to make me believe it. I’m not going to ask you not to look at me and I’m not going to ask you to stay silent. I want to hear you. I want you to talk to me, even if you think I’m not going to like what you have to say. And I want that from this moment forward.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Now, do you think I’m going to hurt you?”

“No, Sir.”

“Good. I don’t want to give you pain or humiliation, Anastasia. I want what I always want. Control.”

“I can do that.” I take a deep breath in. “Whatever you want, whatever I can give you, it’s yours. Just take it.”  

“Tell me your safeword.”

I swallow my last bit of trepidation and fortify myself with the love I’ve made him doubt. With the love I know he feels for me, despite the hurt I’ve caused him. “Red.”

“Good. Now, don’t move.”

He turns away from me and walks to the center of the room. I take him at his word and don’t force myself to look down at the floor. Instead, I keep my eyes trained on him as he brushes the tips of his fingers over a leather covered chair, then the ropes and restraints hanging on the walls. He considers each item he comes across carefully, often testing whichever thing has caught his eye before carefully securing it back to its place on the wall. In a way, I’m given a tour of the room myself, through his exploration of the implements he has available to him.

After testing the integrity of a piece of furniture that looks a little like a wrought iron chain link fence standing up against the wall with just enough padding to make being secured with the leather cuffs in each of the four corners bearable, he decides he’s seen enough and he returns to the leather chair. His eyes stay on mine as he sits down and slowly unravels his bow tie, and once he’s relaxed, he places his hands on either arm rest and settles back until he’s comfortable.

“Lose the dress,” he says. I reach back and start fumbling with the zipper, which makes me feel clumsy. But once I finally get it down enough that I no longer have to struggle to reach it, I remember the scene and try to reveal the rest of my body in a much more seductive manner. He doesn’t look pleased.

“I didn’t ask for a floor show. Show me what’s mine, Anastasia.”

Instantly, my fingers release their hold on the fabric and the dress falls to the floor in a pool of gray. Again, I feel somehow more than naked. The way the lingerie leaves so much of my skin exposed has me hyper aware of my body, and as I feel Christian’s gaze move over me, I feel like I’m the physical embodiment of sex. When his eyes heat with his desire, mine pools down between my legs.  

I step forward, shaking away the material that clings to my heels and wait for my next command. He lifts a finger and silently twirls it through the air, a signal for me to turn and give him the full view. I do, and once my back is to him, he gets up and presses his chest into my mostly naked back until I’m pushed flush against the door, then swings his hand up to smack me hard on the behind. I hiss at the sound.

“You’re too beautiful for your own goddamn good,” he whispers into my ear. I moan as his fingers begin to knead my flesh. “Do you know that I still fantasize about you? All the fucking time. It doesn’t matter how recently I’ve had you, or for how long. There comes a time, at least once a day, where I’ll be sitting in my office at GEH and the only thing I can think about is this.” His hands tighten on my ass again, and a small gasp of pleasure escapes my lips as his fingers pull me apart. “The way it looks when it’s pinked from my hand. Or when I have you bent over, spread open, and I can see my cock moving in and out of you.” He hisses as he takes a sharp intake of breath, and moves his fingers up the back of my arms to my shoulders. “You drive me fucking wild, Anastasia.”

“I feel the same for you,” I manage to breathe back. He groans and then pulls my head to the side with a sharp yank of my hair. I whimper with pain, but it’s quickly soothed away by his lips and tongue on the sensitive skin of my neck. I feel him nip me. I feel him suck. His mouth is so insistent that I’m sure he’ll leave me marked, but I can’t find it in myself to care. I’m too lost in the sensation of his erection grinding into my behind through his pants, and the texture of the door rubbing against my oversensitive nipples every time I squirm.

“Oh god, Christian,” I pant. His bites me right at the epicenter between my shoulder and neck, and then drags the tip of his nose all the way up to my ear, where he starts to suckle at my earlobe.

“Are you wet for me, baby?”

“Mhm.” The muffled sound barely makes it through my trembling lips, but he smiles all the same.

“Why don’t we check on that?”

He pushes more of his weight into me so that he can keep me pinned to the door without his hands and kicks the inside of each of my feet to get me to spread my legs. His thighs hold mine open as he reaches down, but when his fingers touch the miniscule scrap of lace that makes up my panties, he clicks his tongue in disapproval.

“This won’t do.” I’m jolted slightly as he hooks his finger beneath my thong and tugs, pulling my ass away from the door. I put my hands up to support myself in the new awkward position, while he grips onto the elastic that holds the lace together and then pushes his thumbs through the delicate fabric. Once it gives, he tears it all the way up the middle. My vagina is still framed by the tattered remains, but there’s nothing left to cover me. I’m exposed, open, and at his mercy.

One long finger drags up and down my lips, spreading my arousal up to my clit and back down again. Over and over, until my legs start to shake.

“Soaked,” he says. “God, I love the way you’re always ready for me.”

“Take me, Sir. Fuck me as hard as you can.”

My plea is met with a harsh slap across my ass, different from before. Harder. I clench with unexpected pain. “Ah!”

“That sounded an awful lot like a demand.”

“Please?”

His hand disappears from between my legs and once again tangles in my hair. However, this time, he doesn’t move my head to the side to give him easier access to my throat. He pushes me down onto my knees with bruising force.

“Open your mouth,” he commands. I take a second to regain my bearings, then do as he says. With one demanding thrust, he pushes his cock past my lips and my throat tightens at the unexpected invasion. I choke, and he starts to massage my scalp.

“Relax, Anastasia. Breathe through your nose.” I do, but my throat relaxing only enables him to push further inside. His hands act like anchors on the back of my head as he fucks my face, pushing me into him with the same force he uses to take me. My eyes start to water and mascara stained tears start leaking down my cheeks. I begin to drool. The sounds I make around him aren’t sexy and breathy, they’re wet and guttural. None of it dissuades him, and my arousal begins to pour out of me until the insides of my thighs are as slick as my inner lips.

“Oh, fuck!” he shouts, his deep timber reverberating with pleasure. “That’s it, Ana. Just like that. Shit! Shit! Shit!”

Just as quickly as he filled my mouth, he disappears. I fall forward onto my hands, sputtering and coughing, sucking in long pulls of air so I can catch my breath.

“Look at that,” he groans. I look up to see him slowly stroking his erection, and it takes me a moment to realize that it’s not for pleasure. The base of his cock is smeared with my lip color, and he’s spreading it up and down his shaft. “So fucking hot.”

His cock jumps in his hand and my mouth starts to water. I’m filled with such anticipation, such need, that I’m trembling on the floor. I want to leap at him, just like I did that day on the yacht. I want to get the lapels of his tuxedo jacket in my fist and push him back onto the bed on the other side of the room. I want to take what I want from him until I’m sated and satisfied. Waiting for him to do it for me is nearly torture.

“On your feet,” he says. I scramble up off my knees as quickly as I can, then take his outstretched hand. He leads me to a kind of bench that is separated into two halves. The padded top of one half is only a few inches off the ground, the other, a foot or so above that. Following Christian’s instructions, I kneel down on the lower half, then bend over the top.

“Fuck,” he breathes, dragging his hand softly down my back until he grips my ass. “The things I want to do to you…”

I want to tell him that he can do as he pleases. That I want him to use me the way he has in his fantasies. That I want to please him. But I don’t, because it would be redundant. He knows he’s in control. He knows I’m at his mercy. And the sting from the castigation I received the last time my pleas were taken as demands is enough to keep me silent.

“Don’t move,” he says, then he disappears out of my peripheral. Moments later, he returns with a bundle of natural fiber rope that scratches against the skin on my wrists as he fastens them to the legs of the bench. Next, he picks up a heavy metal bar with leather cuffs on either end, winds the buckles around each of my ankles, and then elongages the bar with a strong yank, pulling my legs so far apart, I can feel the stretch in my thighs.

“Too far?” he checks when I whimper.

“No, Sir.”

He paces around me for a moment, examining me, circling me like a shark closing in on his prey. I’m so tight with need, my insides start to ache. The energy pouring off of him as he drinks me in stokes the heat growing unbearably hot inside my belly. And when he finally falls to his knees behind me, I nearly cry with relief at his touch.

His hands slide up the backs of my thighs and dig into the flesh on my behind. He spreads me open, putting me fully on display, before he leans down and kisses my clit.

I scream.

“Easy, baby. We’re just getting started.”

“I need you,” I whine. “So bad.”

“All in good time. Relax.” He kisses me again, gently at first, but the more of my arousal he tastes, the more ravenous he becomes. Like he’s in a frenzy. It’s good that he told me he wouldn’t ask for my silence, because I wouldn’t hear his reminders or warnings over the loud, incoherent cries that rip their way from my chest.

“God, the way you taste, baby,” he says in a voice as rough as sandpaper. “So fucking sweet.”

“Mmm,” I whimper. “Don’t stop.”

“You like the way I eat you? The way my tongue feels inside you? Swirling around your clit?”

“Yes. God, yes.”

“Yeah? How about this?” He licks all the way up until he’s moved past my perineum and his tongue begins dancing around the entrance to my ass. It’s a surprise and my immediate reaction is to get away from him. I try to squirm, but the rough fibers of the rope around my wrists cut into my skin when I struggle, and his hands on my hips are more restraint than the bar between my ankles. He pulls back and spits on me, then uses his tongue to work the added moisture through my tightly bunched muscles. It’s taboo, and erotic, and filthy, and incredible. And when his thumb starts playing with my clitoris while he tongue fucks my ass, the room around me starts to spin until it dissolves completely into a sex crazed fog.

“Christian, wait,” I pant, thrusting my hips hard into the bench to gain some distance from his insistent, wonderful, intrusive tongue.

“Wait?” He sits back, but his tongue is immediately replaced by a finger that sinks deep inside of me. I clench again, and the added tightness makes even that one finger feel impossibly large. “Do you need to say something?”

My safeword. He’s asking for my safeword.

“I don’t want you to stop… I just, your tongue and my–” My entire body grows hot and I assume grows flush with embarrassment, and he responds by pushing his finger deeper inside of me.

“This is mine, just as much as any other part of you, Anastasia. Mine to spank. Mine to taste. And mine to fuck.” He starts to work another finger inside of me, and I let out a high pitched whine. “True or false, Anastasia?”

“What?”

“Is. This. Mine?” His fingers push and pull in and out of me with each word. I struggle to breathe through the rapidly blooming pleasure. Words fail me. Rational thought seems to all but disappear. I’m lost to sensation, until his fingers vanish and he hits me hard across the ass once more. “Answer me.”

“Yes. It’s yours.”

“You’re mine,” he corrects me, and his fingers are once again replaced by his tongue.

Unable to deny him without denying myself, I surrender to the invasion and find that, once I let go of my unfounded embarrassment and trepidation, I actually enjoy the feeling of his tongue ravishing my most forbidden erogenous zone. More than enjoy… the feeling is mind boggling. Pure, uninhibited hedonism that erases expectations and judgements and lets me bask in euphoric delirium. And when I realize he’s going to make me come, I find myself pushing back onto that perfect and oh so talented tongue.

“That’s right, baby.” He pulls away but continues to play with my pleated bunch of muscles, using my slick arousal to heighten the feeling. I start to build. Each pass of his thumb feels as though it turns up the temperature of my body until I’m burning, ready to explode into an all consuming orgasm. I’m close. So close…

And then his hand disappears.

“No! No, don’t stop!”

“Shh.” He turns away, fumbling with something I can’t see, and my orgasm dissipates. It leaves an ache throbbing between my thighs that I can’t ignore. My second denial of the night and every cell in my body begs for release. I can’t even close my legs and let friction do the work.

“Christian. Sir. Master. Please…”

“This is going to be cold,” he replies. My brow furrows, but that’s quickly wiped away by shock as Christian drips an icy liquid over my ass. Lubricant, I soon discover, as the chill vanishes with the friction of his fingers. “Take a deep breath for me, baby.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to put a plug in you. It will be uncomfortable at first, but you’ll adjust. If you don’t relax, it will hurt.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “Yes, Sir.”

He presses the tip of something hard against my entrance and slowly works it forward. It’s easy to take at first, but soon it starts to stretch. Wider and wider, until the pleasure is overwhelmed with pain.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I beg, and he stops. His free hand begins to toy with my clitoris again and a finger dips inside of me until my muscles relax and the pain disappears.

“Almost, baby,” he whispers, and slowly, he begins to ease the plug the rest of the way in. When he leans down to kiss me, there’s a look of pride on his face. “This is going to be hard, Anastasia. And fast.”

I nod, and he moves behind me. His hands are rough and rude as he pulls me apart to make room for his erection, and he slams inside of me in one fluid thrust. The combination of him and the plug has me feeling overwhelmingly full, and his brutal, relentless rhythm threatens to turn me inside out.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream. His hand wraps around my hair and he pushes my face down into the padding on the bench, pressing down, holding me in place, as he ravishes me.

“Take it, Anastasia. Take all of it.”

He’s like a wild animal in the way he moves. The sounds he makes are raw and savage with his need, and his hands hold me so tightly I wonder if he’s hoping he’ll leave marks. It’s real control. Ownership. And all of that has me completely unravelling. Panting, moaning, screaming his name. For a punishment, he seems to be giving me everything I wanted leaving the party tonight.

“Oh god,” I scream. “Don’t stop, Christian. I’m going to come…”

“Oh, baby. You think I’m going to let you come?” I can’t register his response. I’m too lost in the urgency of my impending orgasm. But for the third time tonight, just as I’m about to fall over the edge of ecstasy, he stops and leaves me wanting.

“Fuck. No…”

“It’s amazing how fast you lose it, isn’t it? Five or ten seconds with no stimulation…” He leans down and claims my mouth in a slow, deep kiss that fans the flames of my desire for him, but does nothing to rescue the orgasm slipping through my fingers. By the time his lips pull away, I’ve lost it.

“Why?” I mewl.

“I told you I was going to punish you. You should know by now that I’m a man of my word.”

My protest is cut off as he slams inside of me again and picks up his relentless pace. He pounds into me like he’s trying to fuck the life out of me. And as if his assault wasn’t enough to bring me right back to the edge, he whispers and moans everything he’s feeling into my ear with each and every thrust. How tight I am, swollen from his repeated onslaught and denial. How much he loves looking at me, sweating and needy beneath him. How it drives him crazy hearing me scream his name. How I make him feel. How beautiful I am. How much he loves me. He builds me up over and over again only to deny me. And it goes on forever. I start to lose track of how many orgasms I’ve lost, and each time one falls out of my reach, the pain of its absence becomes more intense.

I came into this room fearing the items on the walls. But any torture they could inflict is nothing to this.

“Please,” I sob, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Please, Christian, let me come. I can’t take it…”

“Do you need to say something to me?” He pulls out of me to give me the chance to safeword, but I’m too distracted by the sight of his erection in his fist to consider it. His cock is bigger than I’ve ever seen it. The tip is so swollen from his own need for release that it’s nearly purple. My mouth waters at the sight of it, my body screams in need. I don’t want to safeword, because I don’t want him to stop. I want him to finish. I want him to finish me.

“Please, Christian. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you a thousand times that I’m sorry, but please! I can’t take it anymore. I can’t.”

“Yes you can.”

“Please… I don’t want to say it. It’s my word, Christian. But if I have to use it when I don’t want to, then it’s not my word anymore, and I need that word. Please, don’t force me to say it.”

For the first time, I see a crack in his otherwise perfectly stoic demeanor.

“Fuck.” His jaw tightens as he battles with the dominant determined to punish me for my indiscretions, and the husband who has only ever wanted to give me the world. His hand comes down on my back, his fingers dig into my skin, and slowly, he pushes inside of me once more.

“Tell me he’s nothing,” he says through clenched teeth.

My eyes screw closed and my fingers tighten around the bench. I’m at a loss. I know what he wants from me, but I can’t give it to him.

“He’ll never be you, Christian. I’ll only ever love you.”

He growls and then lowers his body down over the top of mine. His fingers work on the knots at my wrists and the buckles on my ankles, until I’m completely free of his restraints. Then he flips me over on my back, picks up his rhythm, and kisses me again. I wrap my arms and legs around him, holding him as close to me as is physically possible, and when I’m finally hit with the hurricane force of my orgasm, he pulls the plug out of me and forces me to reevaluate my personal definition of earth shattering pleasure. I scream his name over and over again until he too finds his release.

We come down panting, covered in sweat. My body is sore and weak. I feel drained. But only a minute or so after we’ve had the chance to catch our breaths, Christian gets up and reaches out for my hand.

“There’s a shower. Let me get you cleaned up.”

I nod sleepily, but let me help me to my feet. He half carries me as we make our way into the private bathroom, and sets me on the counter as he turns on the shower. He comes back to me and takes my mouth in a deep, all consuming kiss that lasts long after the room has filled with steam. Even when he lifts me into his arms and carries me into the shower, our lips never part.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper into his mouth.

“I know.”

The hot water burns against my sensitive skin, but I tolerate it because standing beneath the cascade means I’m standing in Christian’s arms. With a sense of care and gentility absent from the rest of this evening, he takes the soap and begins to clean my body. His hands soothe the sting from my raw behind. His fingers massage my shoulders and neck until I’m free of tension. He washes my hair, and holds me tightly against my body while I dip my head under the water to rinse away the suds.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“I’m fine. Are you?”

He swallows, and backs me up into the shower wall. I can feel a plea in his lips as he kisses me again, and the desperate yearning in the way his tongue caresses mine. “When I got on my plane yesterday morning, I really believed you were leaving me,” he says at last.

“That’s not a possibility. You’re never going to lose me, Christian. Not ever.”

“I want to believe that, Anastasia. But this weekend has frightened me in a way that I haven’t been frightened in a very long time. Not since I brought you to this city four years ago. I feel like you’ve forgotten everything we’ve been through together. Everything we’ve promised each other. Every time I’ve vowed to love and cherish you, no matter. How could you possibly think I wouldn’t understand what you were going through?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just spent so much time just trying to forget, that I ended up forgetting all the wrong things.”

He rests his forehead against mine and nuzzles the tip of my nose with his. “I’ll never let you forget again. Perhaps I haven’t been what you’ve needed these past few months. But that will never happen again. I’m here for you. Always. And I love you, more than my own life.”

“I love you too, Christian. So much.”

“Do not betray me again.”

“Never.” He lets out a long breath, then lifts my left hand and places a gentle kiss on my wedding band. My throat constricts and my heart beats heavily in my chest until he reaches down to turn off the water. When he looks at me again, there’s new resolve in his eyes.

“I forgive you.”

“Thank you.” I push off the wall and into his arms, wrapping my own around him as tightly as I can. His lips press into my wet hair and then he lifts me out of the shower. We gather our things and leave the room hand in hand, leaving the hurt and betrayal behind us. By the time he’s buckled me back into the car, I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.

I fall asleep with his hand in mine.

Next Chapter

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.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 20

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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.

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