Chapter 45

Silence. We all sit in complete silence, gaping at Mia while she shakes in her chair. I don’t know what to say, I don’t think anyone does, until Christian finally shakes his head, dispelling his own shock, and starts.

“What you mean you know…? How could you…? I-I– Who is it?”

Her bottom lip trembles as she fights off tears, but before she has a chance to calm her impending breakdown enough so that she can speak, Luke gets out of his chair and moves to Christian’s little sister.

“Mr. Grey, perhaps we should move to somewhere more private before we have this conversation? There are three other families in this room, four individuals… We have no way of knowing that this is a secure place for Miss Grey to tell us what she knows.”

“No, we’re not waiting another–” Christian begins to argue, but as if to prove Luke’s point, a woman walks by and stops dead in her tracks when she glances inside our small little compartment. Her eyes fall on me and widen.

“Oh, good lord!” she exclaims in a thick southern accent. “You’re Anastasia Steele! I watched you on the Today show and then they said on The View that you’d been attacked in New York! What happened, honey? What are you doing down here?”

“Um…”

I stammer, unsure of what to say under this woman’s insistent gaze, but thankfully Luke saves me when he steps through the opening of the vestibule and guides the woman away. Once she’s gone, Christian’s body tightens with frustration and he glares at his sister.

“Is she one of them? Is she working for him too?”

Mia shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“Are you sure? Or is that just another one of your fucking lies?” His voice is icy and full of malice. I’ve never heard him speak to her that way and clearly, it rattles her. She shrinks away from him, but his overbearing fury doesn’t recede when he sees how scared she is looking up at him.

“Elliot, go find Kate,” he barks. “We’re leaving. The second we’re out of this hospital, we stay together. All of us.” He turns angry eyes back on his sister. “And you are not to leave my sight. Do you understand me, Amelia?”

She nods and Christian reaches down to pick up Calliope’s car seat, which is resting against the foot of the chair Luke has just vacated. Elliot hurries out of the vestibule in search of Kate and while the rest of the family gathers their things, I take a breath and go to Mia.

“Come on,” I say gently, placing a comforting arm around her and pulling her into me. She’s still shaking and as I hold her, she starts to cry again.

“I’m so sorry, Ana. I’m so sorry.”

“I know. Let’s go.”

My dad has decided to sit with Taylor as a sign of respect for a fallen soldier and, despite my attempts to bring him along with us, he refuses to leave. Christian gives him the address of the hotel we’re staying at, in case he changes his mind, and asks him to contact us if there’s any changes in Taylor’s condition. He promises we will, so after I’ve hugged and kissed him good-bye, Christian leads us all out to the hospital parking garage where the town car that he drove to pick me up and another, larger rental car are waiting for us. Luke takes the driver’s seat of one, Harrison the other, and Christian pulls Mia into the same town car as Calliope and me.

Though he sits in the front seat and he never speaks, I can feel anger radiating off of him the entire drive to the hotel. Silent tears run steadily down Mia’s face as she folds her arms tightly across her chest and stares through the window. Several times, while I fish around in Calliope’s car seat for the pacifier she keeps spitting out, I reach over to her and try to hold her hand, but she shakes me off every time. Seeing her like this brings me back to the morning of my wedding and the cuts in her skin I’d found as she changed. She told me she was punishing herself. That she hated herself. Now I truly know why she felt that way and it sends me spiraling through a confusing mess of deep rooted betrayal and heartache for the little sister that I love.

Christian won’t be able to accept her reasoning for why she made the choices she did. He’ll never be able to see past the danger her silence has kept us all in, and maybe to an extent, he’s right. I should be furious with her. I should be sick to my stomach over the choice she’s made and everything we’ve lost or come close to losing because of it. But all I see when I look at her is a terrified 17 year old girl, who I know loves her family, and who I know has been tortured with the secret that she’s held and the decision over whether to keep her silence or to tell and risk the safety of her entire family.  

“Let’s go,” Christian barks at her as we pull up to the modest, very un-Christian looking hotel, which he’s reserved under an assumed name to try and throw off anyone who may still be trying to find us. He helps me take Calliope’s car seat out of the back, then carries her into the lobby with his free hand wrapped tightly around Mia’s arm. He doesn’t release her for even a second while Luke checks us in and brings us the keys to our rooms, and when we’re finally behind closed doors again, he pushes her down onto one bed, then settles down on the other directly across from her. I try to put Calli down for the night as far away from the conversation as the cramped hotel room allows. I know she doesn’t understand what’s happening, but I want her to protect her from the amount of anger her father is projecting right now. It’s almost frightening, and even though our daughter is still an infant, I don’t want her seeing him like this.

“Christian, before you start…” Elliot says, the worry clear in his voice, but Christian holds up a hand to silence him. His cold eyes are focused only on Mia.

“Talk.”

She lets out a scared sob and diverts her eyes from her brother. “I’m sorry, Christian.”

“I don’t want to hear your fucking apologies, Mia. I want answers. Start talking.”

“I didn’t know the whole time,” she says defensively. “I thought he was just after me. I thought he was just trying to keep me from telling you who he was. He said all I had to do was keep quiet and no one would get hurt. I didn’t even know Ana was in trouble until she got kidnapped and even then, I didn’t think he was the same person until you said that you thought Gia was involved and then we were at dinner and she said his name…”

“What?” Elliot asks.

She turns and gives a pained look at Elliot. “Charles Gresham. His name is Charles Gresham. It’s the guy you and Gia were fighting over at the barbeque Mom threw for Ray.”

Elliot’s face goes blank, but Christian’s brow furrows in confusion. “Gresham? My finance guy? How could it be Gresham? Why the fuck would he want to come after me? After Ana?”

“Because you stopped him.”

“Stopped him from what?”

She swallows. “That night, when Ana found me at Elena’s club. When she grabbed me and took me away because Elena was trying to force me to have sex with that guy… It was Charles Gresham. He was the dominant who tried to… to…” Her voice cuts off, and this time, it’s Christian’s turn to look shocked.

“But you said… you said you didn’t know his name. When we questioned you before the trial, you said you didn’t know who he was. That’s why we didn’t go after him!”

“I didn’t. Back then, I only knew him as Mr. Darling, and that wasn’t his real name. They all used aliases and it wasn’t like I got their full employment records when they came into the club. They gave me a handful of cash, I took them back to Elena, no one asked questions. But, right before the trail, he found me while I was out getting ice cream with Tibby. He told me to keep my mouth shut, to never speak of him again, and as long as I could do that we wouldn’t have any problems. He wouldn’t have to hurt anyone. Not me. Not my family. I told him I’d never tell anyone, and at the time it was an easy promise to make because didn’t know his name. I couldn’t have told if I wanted to. Then… I found out. Last Thanksgiving, when Ana got caught in that storm, we were watching the news around the clock waiting for updates and he came on during the business segment. His name was on the bottom of the screen. Charles Gresham. I’d know his face anywhere. I’ll never be able to forget it.”

She stops and glances hesitantly back at Christian, but he doesn’t say anything. His expression hasn’t softened, his posture hasn’t relaxed, and he continues to look at her expectantly.

“I thought about telling then,” she continues. “Because I wanted him to have to face some consequences for what he did to me. But Christian had left for Cambridge, Mom and Dad were freaked out about Ana, Kate was caught in the storm too, and Elliot had fallen off the face of the planet… I didn’t really have anyone to turn to. Then Dad got cancer and everyone was worried about that, and Ana was pregnant… I felt like there wasn’t ever a good time to bring all of this up again. Especially with Christian proposing in Paris and planning for the baby. Once all the drama passed, it was like we finally had the chance to be a happy family again and I didn’t want to ruin it. I was just going to let it go. He never really got to touch me and Elena was already in jail. That seemed like fair retribution, I guess. I didn’t know he had anything to do with you or Ana. You never told us anything about Ana, and he had said that if I stayed quiet he wouldn’t hurt anyone. I thought it was just about me keeping his secret…” Her voice breaks as she begins to sob, but when Grace moves onto the bed next to her, she moves out of her reach and looks back up at Christian.

“I wanted to come to you after Ana was attacked and I realized it was the same guy, but I freaked out. I didn’t say anything so…  it was my fault. I couldn’t face that, I couldn’t face you. I really didn’t mean for any of this to happen…” She sniffs. “I just needed to talk to someone first and have them tell me it was going to be okay, that you’d forgive me. I called Kate a few times, but she never answered so I called Alexis instead. She worked at the club with me, as a submissive, and after everything closed down, she’d reached out to me and we’d gotten close. I could talk to her about everything that had happened and she understood. I mean, before he tried to get to me, she was Darling’s, err… Gresham’s favorite. So she knew what I was going through. He requested her almost every time he came in and he’d hurt her a couple times. I thought she would be supportive of me talking to you and would give me the courage to finally just do it, but she didn’t. She talked me out of it. She told me I was right. You would hate me and you’d never be my big brother the same way ever again. You’d only ever see this and it would all be for nothing because what happened to Ana was probably because of Gia anyway. Because Gia got caught opening her big mouth. But now Gia was gone and we were safe again as long as I stayed quiet. I believed that, and that I had to keep the secret because I could see now that he was serious. That he would hurt people.”

Mia hangs her head. “She must have had more to do with him than I knew because it was after that phone call when I started getting the pictures of all of you. He knew that I’d figured out who he was, and that I wanted to tell you. Alexis had to have told him.”

“Alexis?” Christian repeats, closing his eyes. When he opens them again, there’s recognition on his face. “Alexis Young?”

“Yes,” Mia confirms.

“I know her. I met with her after the trial. She was one the girls that wouldn’t take anything from me. She yelled at me and told me she’d never had a steady Dom before working for Elena and that I took that away from her. But she wasn’t the only one that felt that way. Several of the girls wanted to be in the lifestyle and I was fine with that as long as it was their choice. I never thought… Son of a bitch.”

“You said that he requested her every time he came in?” Luke asks. Mia nods.

“Every time. God, I’m so stupid.” She lets her head fall into her hands and then starts to cry again.

“You’re not stupid, Mia,” Grace says, trying again to comfort her, but Christian lets out a dark huff, so she turns a sharp gaze on her son. “You can be mad, but you can’t be cruel, Christian.”

“Oh, I’m more than fucking mad,” he says. “I have done everything I can to be there for you, Amelia. Hell, I’ve fought for you as hard as I fought for Ana, but that doesn’t seem to matter to you at all. I don’t care what else was going on, you lied to me and you keep lying to me, over and over again. This, the bar, hell the fucking party you almost got arrested at last year. It’s like Deja Vu all over again with you. If you had just come to me, I would have protected you. Then, now… I could have protected everyone. But instead, you kept your mouth shut and you lied and now we’re all in danger. Not legally this time. Actual danger.”  

“I was scared, Christian.”

“Oh, please. You’re not a child anymore, Mia. Stop acting like one. This isn’t a small thing that you’ve done and I don’t know we move forward from here. How can I trust anything you say? How do I even know this is the truth? How do I know he didn’t give you something to keep you quiet and that this is all just another distraction? You’ve been telling us all how good your lead role in Swan Lake this year is going to look on your Juilliard application. Did he get you that?” The longer he speaks, the more his anger becomes physically apparent. Mia cowers under his glare so Kate steps forward in her defense.

“Christian…”

“Not now, Kavanagh. This doesn’t concern you.”

“Excuse, you?” Elliot exclaims, jumping to her defense. “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.”

“Yeah.” Kate nods. “And don’t pretend like you haven’t been intimidated by someone into keeping secrets from your family, Christian Grey.”

“This is nothing like me and Elena, Kavanagh. This isn’t just keeping a secret about who my dick has been in, this is her withholding information from me that has almost led to my wife and my child being killed twice. Your best friend, Kate!”

“Well, if you would have just dealt with Elena when you were supposed to instead of lying and protecting her, she would have been in prison years ago and never would have been able to open that club and we wouldn’t be here right now!”

“Oh, here we go!” He throws his hands in the air in frustration. “Don’t try to deflect the blame on me, this is all because she is a sp-”

“Stop!” I scream, cutting off whatever biting response Christian was about to hurl at Kate. “Just stop, okay? This is stupid and it’s not getting us anywhere.”

“No!” Christian shakes his head as his body radiates with anger. He turns back to Mia. “I want answers. I want you to look me in the eye and tell me exactly how you justified keeping this to yourself. This is your fault, Amelia. Ryan, Taylor, Carla… that’s on you. I want to know how you sleep at night.”

“Her fault?” I snap. “That’s what you want out of this? Blame?”

He gives me a dark look and I feel my entire body tighten in defiance as I stare into his cold, gray eyes.

“Fine. Let’s play the blame game, Christian. Mia, yes, you should have spoken up before now. After everything we’ve all sacrificed for you and the choices you’ve made in the past, and how we all still stood by you, it’s really shitty that you wouldn’t trust us now.”

I turn, but look past Christian.

“Carrick, maybe if you were a little bit less concerned about what people thought about you and how your children would reflect on your precious legacy, you wouldn’t have made the exact same mistake with Mia that you made with Christian and she never would have turned to Elena in the first place. Grace, if you focused a little less on making sure your children loved and adored you and actually parented them, you’d have a better idea about what was really going on in their lives and we wouldn’t keep ending up in situations like this. Elliot, maybe if you wouldn’t have had your head shoved so far up your ass about Gia and her involvement in all of this, and if you hadn’t put up such a fight about Christian investigating her, we could have deduced her connection to this Gresham guy sooner and avoided Mia’s involvement altogether. Kate, if you would have given the girl who loved and adored you for years just an iota of your time after you broke up with Elliot, perhaps she would have had someone to talk to while her family was falling apart. Christian, if you learned to control your temper a little better and to forgive a little bit more and if you didn’t turn every small betrayal into some gigantic ordeal that drags us all through hell, she’d have been a little more willing to talk to you. And if I would have listened to her when she was trying to talk to me before, instead of assuming I knew what was wrong or trying to just fix her problems like I’m the one that knows what’s best in every fucking situation, she would have told me about this months ago when she first tried to. There is plenty of blame to go around in this room, but while we’re all in here pointing the finger at each other, he’s still out there. So let’s stop trying to assign blame and just fix the fucking problem!”

I’m shaking now and as everyone in the room gapes at me, I take several deep breaths to calm myself down.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “This anger isn’t going to do anyone any good. I was angry the last time I ever spoke to my mother. I told her I wanted nothing to do with her, and today, I lost her. I’m never going to get the chance to make things right with her again. I’m going to hold that with me for the rest of my life, so I’m not going to let that happen with us. We’re a family. At the end of the day, we’re all each other has and we’re going to deal with this as a family, not adversaries.”

Christian takes a deep breath and finally, he seems to relax. “You’re right, Ana. The enemy isn’t in this room. Mia, I’m sorry…”

“No, I’m sorry, Christian.” He reaches out and takes her hand, then moves to his knees on the floor in front of her so he can look her in the eye while she hangs her head in shame.

“I will never not love you, okay? Never. No matter what you do, and no matter how mad I get or how much I yell, you’re always going to be my little sister and I’m always going to be on your side. But you have to come to me when you’re in trouble. You have to talk to me. No matter what, okay?” She nods, so he kisses the backs of her hands and then looks up at Luke.

“Sawyer, you’re my point man now. We’ll have Mia talk to Hsu, but I don’t want to take any chances on circumstantial evidence. Find me something concrete on Gresham that I can turn over to the FBI and let’s get this son-of-a-bitch behind bars. In the meantime, I want to know where he is at all times and I want to know about anyone he’s in contact with.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke says, and after gathering his laptop bag, he leaves for his own room to get to work.

“Harrison,” Christian continues. “Go back to the hospital and wait with Ray. None of us should be alone right now. I want regular updates on Taylor’s condition. We’ll rejoin you at the hospital in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

Once he too has left, Christian rounds on his family and lets out a low, exhausted sounding breath. “It’s late and it’s been a long day for all of us. We should all try to get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” Carrick agrees. “We’re just next door and Mia’s staying in our room. Kate and Elliot are in the room on the other side of you. We’re all around if you or Ana need anything.”

Christian nods. “Thank you. Lock your deadbolts and don’t open the door for anyone. Everyone should have Luke or Harrison’s number, in case you need security.”

“I have both,” Kate says.

“Text them to me?” Mia asks. She nods and then Grace helps Mia off the bed.

“Come on, sweetheart. You and I need to have our own talk.” She frowns, though she gets off the bed willingly, but before they leave the room, Mia stops to hug me one last time.

“I’m so sorry about your mom, Ana. I’ll never forgive myself for what you’ve lost.”

“You didn’t pull the trigger, Mia. At the end of the day, this all comes down to him, to Gresham, and now we’re going to be able to make sure he never hurts any of us, or anyone else, ever again. Thank you for being honest tonight.”

She gives me a weak, rueful smile and then releases me so that Grace can hug me too. “I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you, dear. I’m so sorry this has happened. But you know, you’ll always have family, right? You have us and we all love you very much.”

“I know. Thank you, Grace.” My throat grows tight when she kisses me on the forehead, telling me that tears from the grief I feel are imminent, so once she releases me, I subtly recoil away from Carrick by moving into Christian’s side. I can’t handle anymore condolences. I’ll break down and there’s still so much I want to talk to Christian about once we’re alone. Thankfully, I think I can see understanding of this need expressed on Carrick’s face and Kate for sure is able to pick up on it. She wraps her hand around Elliot’s and tugs him towards the door.

“We’ll talk later. Okay, Ana?” she says. I give her the most grateful smile I can muster, nod, and then sigh in relief as Christian untangles his body from mine and moves to close the door behind everyone. After the deadbolt drops, he turns back to face me but his body slumps against the door.

“I don’t know what to say to you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t stop this, Ana.”

I shake my head. “No. You tried. This isn’t your fault. You’ve done everything you can and…” I stop, knowing that it’s this exact line of thinking that’s had him thinking about walking away from me all day. The pain in just the idea of that is overwhelming and as I look up at him, my eyes start to tear up again.

“Baby…”

“Please don’t leave me, Christian.”

“Hey.” His voice is soft as he pushes off the door, crosses the space between us, and takes me into his arms. “Baby, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“No, that’s not what you said earlier. You said you were putting me in danger. You were going to leave. I’m not safer without you, Christian. You know that. Separating wouldn’t make him stop coming after us, it would just make us both more vulnerable. We’re stronger together.”

“I know.”

“Then how could you even say that to me?”

“Ana.” His voice is pained and I can see him struggle to find the words to explain himself. His hands move to cup each side of my face and as we stare into each other’s eyes, all that’s reflected back at me is guilt and pain.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he finally admits. “Everything he’s done, he’s pulled off unimpeded. I can’t even predict his plans and if I don’t know who or what he’s targeting next, I can’t guarantee it won’t be you. Hell, it was you. Hyde was in your dressing room, Ana, and people here died today. Can you even comprehend what it would have done to me if the voicemails I had in my phone when I landed this morning had said he’d actually gotten to you? That it was you in the hospital clinging to life? Or worse, that you were dead too? That’s all I’ve thought about all day!” He swallows the lump in his throat. “I can’t lose you like that, Ana. If he was trying to hurt me by going after the people I love, then I thought I had to take you out of that equation.”

“But he’s not just after you. I’m the one who pulled Mia out of Elena’s hands and I’m the one who put her in a car and drove her away. I made Mia tell you about the club, so I’m the reason it was shut down. If he’s seeking revenge because of what he’s lost, then it’s not just you he’s after. I’m just as culpable as you are.”

“We know that now, but this morning…” He pauses again, and by the look on his face I surmise that it’s to stop himself from going down the same dark train of thought he’s been stuck on all day. When he looks into my eyes again, there’s a new sense of determination. “All I wanted to do was protect you. I need you, baby. Please understand that.”

“I do understand that. Because I need you too.” He stares into my eyes for a long time, his gaze pleading, but I’m not sure what for. Forgiveness, maybe? Understanding? I can’t read him, so to cement the sentiment of my words hanging between us, I stand up on my tiptoes and press my lips to his.

“You said you would never leave me,” I whisper into his mouth. “Last year, after the trial, you said I’m never going to leave you. You don’t get to take that promise back, Christian.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry, Ana.”

“I need you to say it again. I need to hear you say you’re not going to leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m never going to leave you, Ana.”

“Good.” I take a deep, calming breath, and once again stare purposefully into his eyes. “I vowed to you on our wedding day that I would remain by your side and that I walk with you wherever our journey leads us. I vowed for better or for worse, and I meant those words, Christian. I would rather walk through hell with my hand in yours than spend an eternity in heaven without you.”

He stands there for a long moment, saying nothing, until eventually his arms wrap around me and he pulls me into a tight embrace. “I don’t deserve you.”

“Yes. You do. We’re meant to be, Christian Grey. You and me.” My hand moves to the back of his head and I once again pull his lips down to mine. The contact between us is soft at first, needy, but as we wrap ourselves more securely around each other, his ardor increases and the kiss morphs into something more fierce and passionate. His hands move back to my hair, unfurling the tie that holds it in a messy knot on top of my head before he discards the band carelessly on the floor. We break away for an instant, looking desperately at one another, until he sweeps me into his arms and carries me to the bed.

I gasp when I fall on the mattress, but the sound is short lived as he covers my body with his and kisses me again. My fingers move up and begin undoing the buttons of his shirt one by one until it’s open enough that I can slip my arms inside and feel his warm skin against mine. He hums a low sound of content at my touch, then reaches down to pull my blouse over my head.

“Ana,” he groans, then moves his lips down my body, between my breasts.

“Love me, Christian.”

His lips softly caress the swoop of my breast before he uses his tongue to trace a path up to my nipple. I’ve only just recently stopped breastfeeding so for the first time since Calliope’s birth, he truly is able to tease and torment my nipples the way that drives me crazy. Licking, sucking, biting. When he nips me, I cry out with a befuddled mix of pain and pleasure that heightens my growing arousal. After a long, arduous day like today, this is what I need from him. To lose myself in our gentle love peppered with his barbaric desire. The intensity of his passion burns away everything until nothing else matters. Only this. Only us.

I groan and fist my hands in his hair, pulling him back up to my lips. The kiss is wild and feverish, and while he claims dominion over me with his tongue, I reach down to undo his fly and then use a combination of my hands, legs, and finally feet to divest him of his pants. Once he’s naked, my hips buck up against his erection, yearning for him to fill the emptiness inside of me that is the result of everything I’ve lost today.

“Christ, Ana.” His words come out in a breath, but are full of the longing that is no doubt a reaction to my own fervor. His lips part from mine and move down to the curve of my neck, where he nuzzles me and covers my skin in soft, sweet kisses, while his hand moves down between my legs.

“Already so wet…” He sweeps his index finger back and forth across my clitoris a few times before he delves inside of me in one slick motion. Instantly, I clench around him and push against his hand. He moves his fingers in and out of me, in time with the rhythm of his tongue and his lips on my neck until I start to build and his hand is drenched with my arousal.

“Oh, fuck. Christian!”

“Taste,” he whispers. His fingers disappear from between my legs and move into my mouth. I suck hungrily, keeping my eyes fixed on his while he stares down at me with unbridled lust and wonder. After my tongue has removed most of my essence from his fingers, he pulls his hand away and immediately attacks my mouth with his again. His tongue is forceful as it moves with mine, seeking out every trace of my arousal that still lingers there.

“Delicious. You are so sweet, Ana.”

“Baby, please…” I beg.  

He sits up on his knees and places my leg over his right shoulder, lifting me even with his erection, but he doesn’t take me right away. Instead, he kisses my ankle and moves his hand tenderly up my calf towards my thigh. After sweeping the pad of his thumb lightly over my aching clitoris again, he moves my other leg over his left shoulder, then repeats the motion.

“Ready?”

“Yes. Please.”

He reaches down and guides his erection between my legs then grips tightly to my hips as he thrusts inside of me. As the euphoric feeling of the fullness takes hold my body, my legs curl around his shoulders, pulling me further into him, and he lets out a deeply gratified moan.

He sets a relentless pounding rhythm that is kept in time with our increasingly harsh and desperate breaths. I have to reach up and hold the headboard to keep it from slamming into the shared wall between ours and Kate’s and Elliot’s room, but when he grabs ahold of my left leg and pulls it over his head, holding my legs together over one shoulder while he continues to move in and out of me, tightening me so I can feel every inch of him, I give up. I don’t care if Kate and Elliot hear us, I don’t care about anything. Only him.

“Christian!” While my screams of pleasure reverberate around us, he lets my legs slide off his shoulder and then twists the lower half of my body to the side so that my legs are still together on the bed while my back remains pressed into the mattress. I reach out for him, pulling him down over the top of me so I can taste his sweet mouth again and as he pounds on and on, we’re reduced to nothing but hands and tongues and touch and overpowering, mind blowing sensation.

“Come for me, baby,” he whispers against my lips. I gasp and tilt my head back, prepared to scream his name again into the charged air around us once my orgasm finally takes hold of my body, but he reaches up and grabs my chin to stop me. “Look at me.”

I do. Our eyes lock and the pure and uninhibited want in his gaze, want for me, is enough to send me tumbling into the warm, dark depths of blissful release. I start to keen loudly as my orgasm overpowers me, but he absorbs the sound into his mouth, taking my screams for himself. With a loud, final grunt, he pushes as deep inside of me as he can reach and finds his own release, which, like mine, seems to go on forever. The feel of him, pushing me into the bed as we lose ourselves completely in one another, as he fills me, as his tongue entwines with mine… it’s perfect. We’re perfect, as long as we’re together.

The final waves of my orgasm come to an end and my entire body melts into the bed as Christian slowly rocks his hips back and forth, holding himself inside of me. I moan, and reach up to brush the locks of hair caught in the sweat on his brow away and stare up at his beautiful face.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too.” He shifts so that I can wrap my legs around his body as he once again lays over the top of me, resting his weight on his forearms, then leans down to kiss the sensitive skin on my neck. With him so close, his scent surrounds me and I’m instantly inebriated. I don’t want him to ever move. I want to lay with him like this forever, stuck in this one perfect moment.

A pleasant, well satisfied moan breaks through my lips and his hands move lazily down my sides so he can explore my body. But soon, the gentle brush of his fingertips starts to tickle and it sends me into a fit of giggles. A breathtaking, genuine smile crosses his face and his fingers become more purposeful and insistent against my body. I try to struggle away from him but his hands clamp down around my sides and he continues to tickle me with just the pressure of his fingers.

“Oh my god, Christian! Stop!” I laugh, but he doesn’t. He just beams down at me until we hear a loud banging against the wall, presumably from Elliot, who I assume has officially heard enough from us.

I have to catch my breath as he finally rolls off of me, but as he settles down on the bed at my side, he turns and stares back at me with warmth and love radiating from his eyes. Despite how terrible these last 24 hours have been, in this moment, I’m actually able to feel something wonderful.

“You’re so beautiful,” he tells me. I smile in response.  

“Mmm. You’re not so bad yourself.” He leans in to kiss me again, but our tongues have only just touched when there’s an insistent vibration of his phone from the pocket of his pants, laying haphazardly at the bottom of the bed. He lets out a huff and then rolls over the top of me again, straddling me as he pulls out his phone and checks the notification.

“Work?” I check.

“No, it’s Luke. He’s running an algorithm to get through the security on Gresham’s system but he wants to know if he should try to find someone who can work security detail for your dad in Montesano.”

“Oh…” Just like that, our bubble is popped and the real world seeps back in. “Actually, I was thinking about asking him to come live with us in Escala for a while, if that’s okay. Just until we’ve resolved this issue with Gresham. I don’t really want him so far away, you know, after my mom…”

“Of course it’s okay,” Christian says. “I’ll call Kommer and have him prepare one of the guest rooms and to give him more space, just in case he wants to bring some of his own things to feel more at home.”

“Kommer?” I repeat, and for first time since I landed in Georgia, I realize that he’s been absent. “You left Kommer in Seattle?”

Christian nods absentmindedly. “He doesn’t live at Escala the way Taylor or Sawyer does. Ryan’s call came very suddenly and in the middle the night. I’d relieved Kommer hours before and I didn’t have time to track him down before I left for the airport. It worked out after I found out my parent’s house had been broken into because it reminded me that there’s other people in Seattle that are vulnerable right now. Ros and Gwen are staying in our apartment until we return and Kommer is with them and Gail. I’m going to have to find a way to make another security shift to ensure there’s someone with them at all times.”

“He made threats against Ros?”

“No, but he goes after people I care about. Ros is not only my best friend but she’s an integral to my company. I need her, and so I need to ensure she’s well protected until we resolve this issue once and for all.”

“Oh,” I reply, and then frown as he starts responding to Luke’s email. “Christian?”

“Hm?”

“Are you sure this was about targeting people you love?”

“You, my family, your mother… seems the most likely.”

“Elena?”

He frowns. “No. That had to be because he never got the book she wrote. People who don’t give him what he wants end up dead.”

“So, why didn’t he go after Hyde? Why did Hyde get a second chance and she got a fake prison riot? Why did Isaac?”

“Because…” he stops, unable to answer.

“I don’t think this was about going after you this time. I think this might have about tying up loose ends. The shooter from the car didn’t target my mom or your team, they mowed down everyone, indiscriminately. And from what we can tell, that wasn’t a reaction to Taylor showing up. It had all been planned. Carter said he never heard an exit strategy, it looks like that’s because there wasn’t one. There wasn’t ever supposed to be one. He wanted Isaac and my mother, maybe even Carter, and he got them all at once. Or he thought he did. Taylor and Ryan were just a bonus. Then he went after Elena, and he probably went to your parents’ house to get to Mia.”

“Maybe, but that still doesn’t answer your original point. What about Hyde?”

“Well… it wasn’t a very well thought out plan and we know that isn’t this guy’s modus operandi. I mean, even while he was on top of me holding a knife I was wondering how he planned to get out of that room. There was only one exit and Luke was standing outside the door.”

“So Hyde is incompetent, that doesn’t answer the question.”

“It might though. Leila told me right after she saved me that he, well Gresham, would know how difficult it would be to get to me once he’d showed his hand. If he really wanted me, he wouldn’t have sent someone who would bumble their way through it. I think he knew that Luke would stop Hyde, probably kill him, which mean that he wouldn’t have to. That or he’d succeed and bring me straight to him. Even now, in the worst case scenario where Hyde is alive and we’ve got him in custody, he doesn’t know enough to reveal who he is and they’re probably going to put him in prison. Just like they did Elena and we know happened to her. It’s all a win/win for him.”

He looks down at me for a long beat, examining me carefully, then gets out of the bed and starts to pace the room.

“So, if he’s getting rid of of all of his people…”

“Then we’re coming to the end. It’s all about to come to a head.”

“Because he hasn’t gotten what he really wants yet.” Christian starts nodding, as though all of this is starting to make sense. “He’s going to make a final move and he’s going to come after us. Hard. With everything he has left. He’s wants to end this too, just in his way.”

“We have to stop him, Christian. And we have to move fast.”

“We will. Once we settle your mom’s affairs, we’ll go home and we’ll take care of this once and for all. He can’t hide from us anymore.”

I nod, feeling reassured that we at least seem to be fighting on equal ground now, but as Christian walks towards me again, his phone rings in his hand.

“Harrison?” he answers. I wait while he listens to whatever Kate’s CPO is saying to him, trying to gauge the news by his face. He gives nothing away though, and when he hangs up the phone, his salutation is blunt. “We’ll be there soon.”

“Taylor?” I ask.

“He’s awake,” Christian says. “They took him off the vent and he’s breathing fine. The doctor says he’ll need a few more days of recovery, but the worst is over. He’s going to be okay.”

“Thank god.” All of the air in my body seems to leave my body in one long breath, taking with it the heavy weight of the fear I’ve held in my heart for Christian’s most trusted right hand man. “Thank god.”

 

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Chapter 44

I don’t feel anything. The entire flight from Newark to Hilton Head Airport I keep waiting for my emotions to take over, but they don’t. I sit in the seat of the tiny plane Christian was able to charter this morning feeling like a blank canvas. Not speaking. Registering nothing.

“Do you want to eat?” Luke asks from the seat across from me. I don’t even look at him as I shake my head. “Ana, you may not get a chance once we land. Have some pretzels.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Ana…”

“Just… bring me a bottle from the diaper bag. Calli should eat before we land.”

I hear his sharp intake of breath through his nose, but he doesn’t argue with me again. He gets up to do exactly as I ask and while I listen to him shaking the bottle of formula behind me I tighten my hold on my daughter, who is now sleeping in my arms. She screamed when the plane took off and continued to cry until long after we’d reached cruising altitude, but I almost prefered that. Now that she’s quiet and resting peacefully, there’s nothing to distract me from my thoughts. I know my mother is in critical condition, bad enough that Christian had been concerned about the time it would take me to fly from New York to Georgia, but I don’t know what happened to her or if anyone else I care for is among the injured. Or worse.

Carter. Taylor. Ryan. Bob.

They’re all question marks to me right now.

But they’re not the only questions keeping me silent. The thing making this the most difficult for me right now are the words that Luke said to me in the dressing room at the Today show, about Hyde.

“From what we know of this guy, he doesn’t seem to have a very forgiving nature when it comes to the people he has working for him not coming through…”

Hyun, Leila, Isaac. All people we know were working for him, and now they’re all dead because they didn’t accomplish what they were supposed to. When my mom did what she did after Calliope was born, I couldn’t understand it. I knew she’d been scared after what happened to me during spring break and, while I didn’t agree with it, I could even understand why she’d let that fear manifest into blame on Christian. But what I couldn’t understand was how she could, as a parent herself, let another parent believe their child was dead. How she could be selfish enough to try and steal a child away from her father when she believed that child had just lost her mother. How she could put the entire Grey family, who have been nothing but warm and welcoming from the day they met, through that much pain.

Unfortunately, the answer to those questions now seems obvious. She did what she did because he told her to. It was his plan. He wanted to hurt Christian, and he used someone I trusted to do it. That’s why she was so adamant about trying to break up Christian and I. That’s why she drug my dad into this and tried to poison him against Christian. Because of him. He wanted to take me away from Christian any way he could and my mother was going to help him. She didn’t though, and now she’s paid the price. But after everything Christian has given her, what could he have possibly promised her that would make her do this to him? To me?

I take a deep breath and tilt my head back, trying to fight back tears as I wonder what would have happened had I not made it through Calliope’s birth. She was in the hospital for 10 days. If they’d taken me off life support on day three, Christian and his family would have been gone long before she was discharged. Would she have been allowed to take her home? And if so, would she have tried to raise Calliope as her own, or would she have delivered her straight to him? Given him the ultimate leverage to use against Christian and take everything else he has away from him. Would he have ever gotten her back?

As I take the bottle from Luke and start to feed my daughter, my arms tighten around her tiny frame and I don’t relax my hold on her until after we’ve touched down in Savannah. A strange mix of nerves and dread course through me as we prepare to deboard because I’m not sure I even want to see my mother or know what her condition is. The betrayal I’ve felt so acutely since Calliope’s birth has been made even worse by my suspicion that she’s been involved in all of this and I can’t deal with that and the pain I still feel over the idea of losing her forever. Because, despite everything that’s happened over the last few months, she’s still my mother.

The choices she’s made don’t erase the twenty-two years of memories I have with her. They don’t negate all of the kisses on scraped needs, cuddles after nightmares, or the touch that was the only thing that felt good when I was sick. Hating what she’s done doesn’t make me forget about birthdays, or Christmases, or the one week every summer we spent on the beach playing in the surf and building sand castles. It doesn’t take back every I love you, even if it does make me question the sincerity behind it. It’s one thing to hate your mother when you know she’s safe. It’s an entirely different thing altogether when you know you’ll never speak to her or see her again. When you know that you’ll never have the chance to make things right.

I let out a long calming breath as I take the stairs from the plane down onto the tarmac, but the effects are wasted when I look up at the car waiting for us and see Christian step out. Not from the backseat, but the driver’s seat. Neither Taylor or Ryan are with him and after what happened last night, there’s only one explanation for why he would be alone out in public right now.

“Let’s get everything in the car as quickly as possible,” Christian says, looking past me to Luke. “We need to get back to the hospital.”

“What happened, Christian?” I ask.

He ignores me. “Get in the car, Ana.”

“No, where is everyone?” My voice is desperate as I seek answers to all the questions that have plagued me since I last spoke to him on the phone, but again, he doesn’t answer. Instead, his eyes flit nervously over the empty airfield around us and he pushes me towards the passenger seat of the black Cadillac.

“Just get in the fucking car.”

The bite in his tone momentarily extinguishes my need for answers as I too find myself looking over my shoulder before allowing him to take Calliope out of my arms and hurry me into the car. Luke buckles the carseat in behind me and once Calliope is secured inside the seat, Luke piles in next to her and Christian comes back around to the driver’s seat. Again, he looks warily around before he begins pulling off the tarmac and then speeds down the vaguely familiar highway in the direction of the hospital.

“What happened?” I ask again.

He takes a breath through his nose and when he speaks, his voice is tight. “They were ambushed.”

“How?” Luke asks.

“I don’t know… I don’t know the whole story. Everything happened very quickly. When they called me and I got on the plane, everything had gone according to plan. They had Isaac, they were bringing Carla back to Seattle… but when I landed, no one was there. None of them answered their phones, I had no idea what was going on. All I had was your mother’s address so I went there first and when I got there, the street was covered in glass and blood and everything was roped off by the police. They said it was a drive by.”

“As in… a shooting?” I ask. He nods.

“Your mother and Taylor are in critical condition, they were both in surgery when I got to the hospital.”

“Carter?” I check.

“He was wounded, but I think he’s going to be okay. I’m not really sure. He was admitted but he was also being questioned by the police so I haven’t had the chance to speak with him.”

“And, Ryan?” Luke asks. Christian presses his lips into a thin line and then slowly, shakes his head.

“Jesus Christ.” I look over my shoulder at Luke, who looks a little winded, and then reach back to take his hand. They were friends, and now he’s gone. Just like that. He squeezes my fingers with his, and then takes a few long deep breaths.

“Was there anyone apprehended at the scene?”

“No, the police are still looking for the car but Reed is the only witness who isn’t dead or unconscious. From what I’ve heard all he’s been able to tell them was that it was a black SUV with its lights off.”

I shake my head with disgust. “How did he coordinate something like this? Georgia, New York…”

“Washington,” Christian says, and the words send a tingle up my spine.

“Washington? What?”

“Kate and Elliot went to a concert in Tacoma last night and they stayed in a hotel, so my parents were watching her dog. Apparently he woke everyone up in the middle of the night barking his head off but when my dad got up to let him out, he didn’t see anything unusual. This morning though, after you called looking for me, Elliot brought Kate back to the house before going to Escala and when my dad told her that Champ had freaked out in the middle of the night, she asked Harrison to take a look around. The lock on the gate had been broken and the control panel on the alarm had been dismantled. It looks like someone tried to break in but got scared away when they came face to face with a 130 lb Bullmastiff.”

“Oh my god… everyone’s okay though?”

“Yeah.” He nods. “Thank god for Champ. I’m going to personally see to it that dog is never fed kibble for the rest of his life.”

“How did they get that close? Where was the security guard you hired to stay at your parent’s house?”

“You fired him last weekend. Remember?”

Right. Mia. Fuck, I forgot all about Mia. Should I tell Christian everything she said to me the morning of the wedding now? In the middle of all of this? I don’t know if he can handle much more.

“There’s more…” he says hesitantly. Shit.

“More?”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, then presses his thumb into the news app on the screen before passing it across the console to me. There are a few stories spread across the home page, all Seattle news, so it takes me a second to realize what he’s showing me.

 

Women’s Correctional Facility Riot Leaves One Inmate Dead, Others Wounded.

 

I don’t have to read the article to figure out who it was. Besides, this brings up another issue. One I don’t want to face or admit is an issue at all, but because I love the man sitting next to me, I have to.

I take a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Christian.”

“No, you’re not,” he replies bluntly. “And it’s fine. There’s no reason to be.” He’s brushing me off but I catch him swallowing, as if he’s trying to force down a lump in his throat, and the muscle in his jaw ticks as he clenches his teeth.

“You can talk to me, I won’t be upset. Are you… Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not okay,” he says bluntly. “But that has nothing to do with Elena. I’ve done everything I know how to do and I can’t stop him. He’s always one step ahead of me.” His hand moves up and drags through the light stubble over his chin and when he reaches back down for the steering wheel, he squeezes it so hard that his knuckles turn white. “Did I make the wrong choice?”

“What do you mean?”

“When Elena offered me his name for her freedom. Did I make the wrong choice?”

“You mean when you refused to put a child molestor and a convicted sex criminal back on the streets in exchange for the vague promise of a name? No, Christian. You didn’t make the wrong choice.”

“It’s very easy to moralize the situation when you frame it in black and white like that but things turn gray real fast when you consider what we’ve lost trying take the high road. I sent them here, Ana. Ryan’s blood is on my hands, and if Taylor or your mother…” He stops and swallows again. “It would be different if he was coming for me, but he isn’t. He attacks the people I love and I can’t stop him.”

“You will,” I reply firmly. “We’ll find a way.” We have to. There is no other choice. He doesn’t seem as sure though.

“When? And who else am I going to lose before that happens? Mia? You? I can’t keep lying to myself and think I’m protecting you when Hyde was in your fucking dressing room. I can’t stop him and I can’t risk losing you, Ana.”

“You’re not taking risks, this is happening to you. To all of us. You’re doing everything you can to make sure we’re all safe.”

“Am I?”

“What are you saying, Christian?”

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know what I’m saying, I don’t know what I’m thinking… I don’t what I want to do. Maybe your mom was right. Maybe the answer is that… I’m too dangerous for you.”

“No, that’s not true,” I snap, but he doesn’t look at me. He focuses only on the road as he turns into the parking lot of the hospital. I don’t know how to take what he’s said. I don’t know if he’s serious or if he’s just scared, but his thought process over this whole thing has obviously changed, and this new direction has taken the wind out of me. Suddenly, in a whole new way, it feels as though I may be fighting for my life.

Once we’re parked, he gets out of the car and comes around my side to open the door. I over examine everything, from the way holds my hand in his to the way he walks beside me. In this moment, I can’t even think about what’s waiting on the other side of the automatic doors, even after we step through them.

“Christian,” I whisper. “I love you.”

He stops, pulling gently against my hand to stop me with him, and then looks deep into my eyes. They gray of his irises seems darker than normal, concealing his thoughts and emotions from me. I can’t read him, so I’m surprised when he takes my face in his hands, leans down, and kisses me. Not politely. This kiss is entirely inappropriate for the number of strangers in the waiting room around us, and for my CPO standing only a few feet away, carrying my daughter. His tongue invades my mouth and tangles forcibly with mine. He groans passionately against my lips. When he pulls away, it’s only because we’re both breathless and he has to take a moment to rest his forehead against mine to catch his breath.

“I love you too,” he whispers, sounding pained. “So much.”

There’s resignation in his voice that is terrifying and when he reaches down for my hand again, my throat tightens and tears spring to my eyes.

“Christian…”

He cuts me off. “Come. Let’s get an update.”

 

Taylor and my mother are out of surgery, but it’s too early to tell anything real about their condition. They’ve been moved into the ICU, where they’ll remain under constant supervision for at least the next 24 hours. Carter is no longer being interviewed by the police though, so we go to his room first to get the story of what actually happened.

“Carter,” I gasp as we step into the room. He’s shirtless, sitting up in bed, and there’s a large white bandage wrapped around his left shoulder. When he turns to look at me, he winces.

“Ana, are you okay?” There’s genuine concern in his voice that makes me feel guilty.

“Me? What about you?”

“I’ll be alright, it’s just the shoulder. Hurts like a bitch but it should leave a pretty cool scar that I can use to impress some girl who’s way too hot for me when I get out of here.”

I laugh and then carefully ease myself down on the side of his bed. “I’m so sorry, Carter. This is all because of me. I shouldn’t have agreed to what you proposed. You should have said no.”

“I’m not sorry,” he says. “What happened would have happened whether I was there or not and if I had said no and your mom was taken or killed, I wouldn’t have been able to ever look you in the eye again. We gave your mom a chance when she had nothing before, and at the very least, he lost someone too. Someone important. The fewer people he has to use to get to you and Calli, the better we’ll all sleep at night. I don’t regret going, Ana. I’m proud of my decision.”

“And I’m forever grateful,” Christian says. “This didn’t work out the way we’d hoped, but I want you to know that what we talked about still stands. And, if you ever need anything, it’s yours. Just call me.”

“Thanks, Grey.”

“Christian,” he corrects him. “My friends call me Christian.”

Carter smiles but then winces again and takes a deep breath as he allows his body to relax back into the pillows.

“I don’t want to put you through more than you’ve already had to endure,” Christian says. “But Ryan is dead and the head of my security is unconscious. I’d really like to talk to you about what happened.”

He nods. “Of course. Um… Isaac pulled me out of bed just after midnight. There was no phone call or advanced warning, he just shook me awake in the middle of the night and told me we had to go. Ana wasn’t supposed to be in Atlanta until Friday so we all thought we had more time. I was worried that Taylor wasn’t ready. I knew he had me under surveillance but I also don’t really know what that means so I thought maybe he might not have been prepared to go right then. We snuck out of the house and drove off my block, but I had no idea if Taylor knew we were leaving or not and I had no way to contact him. I just had to sit.”

“It’s like three hours from my house to Savannah and Isaac didn’t say a single word to me the entire drive. I didn’t even know where we were going. We just pulled up alongside the street of this random neighborhood and he started walking me through the plan. How we were going to get into the house, where the target would be, how we were going to restrain her. He never told me an exit plan and I realize now, that should have been a red flag, but I don’t know enough about this stuff to ask. I just agreed and silently hoped Taylor was there.”

“We got out of the car and went down this alley and jumped a back fence. It was only 4:30 so it was still dark outside and we came up behind this strange house. He jimmied the lock on the external garage door.”

Suddenly, I can picture the scene he describes with perfect detail. I know exactly the door he’s talking about and I know that my mother doesn’t lock the door from the garage into the house. From there, it’s only a few short steps to her bedroom.

“We got into the house and he handed me a gun. I waited for him to move first and then followed him through a laundry room and then off the right to the bedroom. She was still asleep so she didn’t hear us come in. She didn’t know we were there. He was fast. He got to her and pulled her out of bed, and she was so disoriented he’d already had the duct tape out before she started to scream. He didn’t even ask me for help as he tied her up, he didn’t need it. The way he restrained her and tied the ropes around her wrists, it’s like he’d done it a thousand times before and watching him do it was almost sickening. I still didn’t know who she was, but I knew that he planned to kidnap her and would probably end up killing her, and because I didn’t know where Taylor was, it felt like I was just letting it happen. I almost had to try and stop him, but as she struggled to get away from him and he finally called me for help, I heard the click of a gun behind me and Taylor’s voice telling Isaac to put his hands in the air.”

“He did and once Ryan came into the room and we both lifted our guns and pointed them directly at him. He dropped his weapon and backed up against the wall. Taylor wanted to get him out of the house, to get him somewhere secure, so while he dealt with Isaac, Ryan called you, and I moved to help the woman. It was only after I’d freed her that I got an inkling who she was. She has Ana’s eyes. She started to cry and I hugged her and told her that Ana had sent us for her and that she was safe. Then Ryan came back into the room to help Taylor. They talked for a while, trying to decide where to take him that would be safe until you arrived. I don’t even know where they decided, I was too focused on trying to calm down Ana’s mom, but once a decision had been made, they each hooked an elbow through Isaac’s arms and started dragging him from the room. They had a big SUV outside to get us all out of there and Ryan got in first so that they could put Isaac in the back seat between him and me. Taylor got in the driver’s seat, and I helped Ana’s Mom into the front passenger seat. I’d just closed the door and moved to get in the backseat myself when another car without headlights on pulled beside the car and opened fire.”

“The whole thing happened so fast. It probably only lasted maybe ten seconds but they unloaded a full magazine from an automatic rifle into the side of the SUV. I got hit almost immediately so I fell to the ground and I think now they must have thought I was dead. I probably would have been had I been in the car because both Ryan and Isaac…” He shudders. “I could hear their tires screeching as they peeled out on the asphalt and then a few seconds later the neighbors started coming out into their lawns and someone called the police. The ambulance came and brought us here and once they took the bullet out of me and patched up my arm, the police came in to question me. I don’t know anything else. Are Taylor and Ana’s mom okay?”

“We don’t know,” Christian says. “They just got out of surgery. They’re alive though.”

“Good.” He nods and I reach out to rest my hand over his, but I’m distracted again by a worried voice from the hallway.

“Ana?” It’s Kate and when she passes the open doorway and sees us sitting inside, she first looks relieved. Then her eyes fall on Carter and the bandage around his shoulder and her mouth falls open with shock.

“Kate? What are you doing here?” I ask.

“We just landed,” she explains. “The whole family came. We went to see your mom and Taylor and they told us you were here. They asked me to…” Her words cut off and she almost seems to gasp, like she’s having a hard time catching her breath. “Carter?”

“Hey, Katie…” he croaks. Her eyes widen with disbelief as she comes into the room and starts to examine him.

“Oh my god. Why are you here? What happened to you?”

“Oh you know. Just casually taking a bullet on the side of the road, typical Monday night stuff.”

“He was trying to save my mom,” I add.

“What? Why? Jesus Christ, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s nothing really. Actually…” He hesitates. “Katie, I’ve meaning to call you…”

“Ana?” It’s Elliot this time, standing awkwardly in the doorway, and he shifts uncomfortably as his eyes move from Kate and Carter, to me. “The doctors said you need to come. It’s not looking good.”

“Who?” I check, but the answer is in his eyes. I scramble quickly off the bed, reaching for Christian’s hand as I scurry across the floor. “I’ll be back, Carter,” I call over my shoulder. “I promise.”

“Don’t worry about me, Annie,” he replies. Kate takes the place I’ve vacated on his bedside and Elliot lingers in the doorway for just a moment, but he doesn’t say anything. He turns and follows Christian and I back down the brightly lit sterile hallway towards the ICU.

There are too many people surrounding my mother’s bed. Kate was right, the entire family came, and I have to force my way between Mia and Grace before I can see her.

It’s a shock.

She’s paler than I’ve ever seen her look before and there’s dry blood matted in her hair. They have her covered from the neck down so I don’t really know where she’s injured, but her halted breathing, even with the help of an intubation tube, gives me a good idea. Her eyes are closed, but the blood and the tubes make it impossible for me to imagine she’s just sleeping.

Looking at her, I feel so small. The shock grips my lungs like a vice, making it hard to breathe, and I can feel by body shaking. I want to cry and scream and be sick all at once, but I can’t do anything. I can’t can’t move. I can’t hold myself up. As the shaking becomes more violent, my knees give out and I’m swept with a wave of vertigo.

“Annie!” my dad cries worriedly from the other side of the bed.

“I’ve got her,” Christian says. He holds all of my weight as he catches me and pulls me against him, then turns to Elliot. “Bring me that chair, please.”

With a nod, Elliot turns and drags the chair against the wall near the foot of the bed towards me, and slowly Christian lowers me into it. My dad comes around the bed and kneels down next to me, then reaches up and takes my mother’s pale hand in his. The touching gesture catches my eye and brings up another question that was nagging at me on the plane. There should be another man here, holding her hand.

“Where’s Bob?” I ask.

My dad glances up at Christian and then back to me. He looks nervous. “I’m sorry… I should have said something but you and your mom weren’t really, uh…” He takes a breath. “Bob left your mom, Annie. Right after your graduation. He’s been living in an apartment a few miles away from her since June.”

“Oh…” At first the news doesn’t seem to make much impact on me, I think because I’m still in so much shock over everything that’s happened, but then, without warning, the dam holding back all of my emotions bursts with unbelievable force and my body crumples in the chair as I’m overtaken by horribly painful sobs. My dad pulls me into his chest and wraps as much of me as he can in his arms. He doesn’t whisper words of comfort into my ear, he knows there’s nothing he can say. He just holds me and lets me cry.

“Umm… excuse me. Are you Anastasia Steele?” I look up and, through my tears, see a very somber man looking down on me.

“Grey,” I cough, the correction now automatic, but when I nod, he takes a breath and steps past Carrick. He gives me a rundown on the severity of my mother’s condition and her injuries, which include three gunshot wounds to the chest and one to the abdomen. From his explanation of the surgery and everything they’ve observed since she’s been brought into the ICU, I get my first taste of how grim the prognosis really is. She’s not going to wake. She’s gone, and as her next of kin, they’re looking to me to make a decision on what to do. Only there isn’t really a choice. There’s only one thing to do. I just have to be the one to say it.

“It’s crowded in here…” Grace chokes from behind me, trying to hide her own tears. “Why don’t we go back to the waiting room and give Ana and Ray a little space, huh?”

Mia nods, but reaches out and hugs me over the back of my chair. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I love you, Ana.”

“I love you too, Meems.”

She sniffs and then let’s her mother lead her from the room with Elliot dragging along behind. Carrick gives me a tortured but sympathetic look, then tells Christian they’ll be outside before he follows after his wife and children.

“Mrs. Grey?” The doctor presses me. I glance back down at my mom and blink away tears.

“Can I just have a moment alone with her, please?”

“Of course,” the doctor says. “We’ll come check on you again in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” He turns to leave and my dad stands and leans over my mother’s bed to kiss her on the forehead.

“Good-bye, Carla,” he says, unsuccessfully covering the crack in his voice. He turns back to me, reaches into his jacket, and pulls out a thick bunch of envelopes that are held together with a blue rubber band. “I met Elliot at Escala and he saw the letters piling up on the counter that your mom’s been sending to you. He thought you might like them now. If you want.”

“Thank you,” I tell him, reaching out and taking the letters from his shaking hands. His eyes are glassy and he takes a deep, wet breath before nodding, then kisses the top of my head and exits after the doctor.

“Do you want me to go?” Christian asks.

“Please,” I whisper. “But stay close. Okay? Don’t leave.”

“I won’t.” He too kisses me, on my forehead though. “I’m so sorry, Ana. If you need me for anything, I’ll be in the waiting room.”

“I’ll be out soon, okay?”

“Okay. I love you, baby.”

His words make me start to cry again but I shake off his attempts to comfort me and instead ask him to leave again so I can have one more moment alone with my mother. He does, and once I hear the door close behind him, I sink out my chair and onto my knees. I place the letters on the bed and then entwine my fingers with my mother’s

“It’s just you and me now, Mom. No one else. Please wake up.” I pause, gripping her hand tightly with mine as I wait, but she doesn’t stir. “Please,” I beg again. “Okay, we can talk. I shouldn’t have just ignored you, I’m sorry. But we can talk now. We can work out everything between us, we’ll figure out a way, but just wake up, okay? Please? Please, Mom.”

I wait, but there’s nothing. The room is silent except for the slow, steady beep of her heart on the monitor. A beep that won’t last forever.

“Please.”

The doctor doesn’t give me long. When he returns I ask him to explain everything to me one more time so I can be absolutely sure once this is over that I’ve made the right decision. After all, I was on life support once. But this isn’t like when I was in the hospital after Calliope. There isn’t a chance that she’s going to wake up and be fine. There isn’t even a chance that she’ll wake up with severe mental deficiencies or impaired motor function. This is about a machine that’s moving her lungs, and pumping her heart, and how long I want those machines to keep running.

He hands me a form to sign saying that he’s explained everything to me and that I understand what removing life support means. I scrawl a very shaky signature across the bottom and when he asks if I’d like another moment, I shake my head. There’s no sense in prolonging this. There’s no reason to hold on to something that isn’t there or to drawing out this pain. Hope is worse than defeat right now.

“I can’t watch you do it,” I tell him. He nods as his team comes into the room and then steps aside to let me pass.

I pause outside the room to let myself unravel. There’s no sound to whatever they’re doing inside so I don’t have to hear the final moments, which I’m grateful for. I slide slowly down the wall at my back until I’m sitting on the floor and while I try to regain control of my breathing, I reach out for the letters at my side, and slowly, open the one on top.

 

Anastasia,

I know you can’t understand what I did and I don’t expect you to. Hell, I think I was half out of my mind myself. I don’t intend to make excuses. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But at the very least, I do want you to know that what I did wasn’t purely out of selfishness. I was trying to protect you. I was trying to protect your daughter.

Before I came to Seattle for your baby shower in March, I’d gotten a phone call. It was a man who told me that your involvement with Christian was going to get you killed. He said that it was in my best interest to get you to leave Christian of your own volition, that that was the only way you’d be safe. I asked him who he was but he told me not to ask questions. Questions would get you killed. Words in general would get you killed. I was to convince you to leave, to break Christian’s heart, and if I could do that, you would be fine. He promised me that if you walked away, he wouldn’t harm you and he wouldn’t harm your baby. But if you didn’t, you would die. If I spoke of this conversation, you would die. If I called the police, you would die.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten calls from crazies about you. Ever since your name started being printed in the news, people have called me. They always say vile things about what a slut you are or about raping you… I thought this was just the same in a long line of terribly unfunny prank calls.

But it wasn’t.

After your baby shower, you were attacked, and I knew it was real. And it was all because of me. Because I didn’t take it seriously. He called me again, and gave me one last chance. I took it. I knew you were too stubborn to listen to me, especially with a baby on the way, so I screamed at Christian on the phone and brought up everything he’s ever done and how it affected you. I blamed him for every hurt, for every tear, for every ounce of physical pain hoping that he might just give up and leave. But he wouldn’t. So then I tried Ray.

When he called you on your graduation, I thought that was the day. I thought I’d run out of time. I watched you laying in that hospital bed and I couldn’t stop all the horrible thoughts that some how, he’d done this to you. None of this was an accident, that you’d been poisoned or he’d found a way to hurt you, maybe while you were sleeping. It’s seems implausible now, but at the time, I was too blinded by fear and the reality that I was going to lose you for it not to all make sense.

I thought I’d lost you, Ana. I wasn’t going to lose Calliope too. That’s why I said what I said to Christian. I wanted to protect her from him. When I wrote my first letter to you, I still wasn’t sure I should tell you. I’m still so scared. Your father told me about the Leila girl and the boy from Thanksgiving, I don’t want that to be you.

But you won’t listen to me anymore, so I can’t protect you. There doesn’t seem to be any benefit to staying quiet if I can’t do what he’s asked me to do to keep you safe, so here it is. You’re in danger, Ana. Please, please, consider that. Consider the safety of your daughter. Run away. Please.

And don’t hate me forever.

I love you, darling baby girl. I’ll always love you. I’ll always be here for you. I’ll always be your mom.

 

Heartbroken. That’s the only way I can explain the way I feel right now and as I watch the doctors come out of my mother’s room while more hospital personnel go inside, I know I need to get out of here. Taylor is still here somewhere, and I don’t want to leave Carter alone, but I can’t be here right now. I need somewhere I can let myself fully absorb the gravity of what’s happening and then properly fall apart. Maybe in a hotel room, maybe just in the car, but either way, I need to leave this hospital.  

I peel myself off the floor, and make my way down the hall to the waiting room, where I know my father and the Grey’s are waiting. It’s an extremely nice setup they have here, the opposite really of the waiting room in Seattle. There are wooden partitions up that create private spaces for family members to come together, probably because this floor has seen so much death. But it means, as I search for my family, that I hear them talking before they see me and when I hear Christian’s voice, I stop to listen.

“I don’t know what else to do, Elliot,” he groans. “You think this is really what I want? You think I could live a day without Anastasia? He’s coming after me and you’re all in danger because of it. Because of me. I can’t let him hurt her.”

“So get on your plane,” Elliot says. “Let Ros have GEH, get on your plane with Ana and Calliope and just go somewhere he can’t find you. I know that you’re scared but you can’t leave her, Christian. It would destroy the both of you and… you’re a father now. That little girl deserves to have you in her life.”

“There’s got to be a way we can stop him,” Carrick says. “Something we haven’t thought of yet.”

“Are you willing to lose people we care about while we try?” Christian counters. “He was at your house last night, Dad. Ana’s mother is going to die because of him.”

“Yeah, so… are we going to talk about what that means?” Elliot asks.

“What do you mean?” Grace asks.

“Well, this guy knows everything Ana and Christian does, so he would know that Ana was estranged from her mother. That doesn’t make her a very likely target if he was trying to get her just to hurt Ana. We all had questions after she tried to basically kidnap Calliope after she was born, maybe… Don’t hate me for saying this, but maybe she was working with him. He does go after his own people when they don’t live up to his expectations and Carla didn’t deliver a baby to him.”

“No,” Christian says. “Carla didn’t like me, but she loved Ana. She wouldn’t have helped the man who was trying to hurt her.”

“She would if she thought that is what she was trying to prevent,” I say, and the voices on the other side of the partition go silent. I take a breath and wipe away the moisture still clinging to my cheeks before I step into view. Every pair of eyes turn to look at me, so I hold up my mother’s letter. “He called her before my shower and told her that if she didn’t break Christian and I up, he was going to hurt me and Calliope. He promised her that if she could convince me to break Christian’s heart and that she never said anything about him, that he wouldn’t harm me. He used my life as leverage over her and she fell for it.”

“What?” my dad asks. I hand him the letter. It’s silent as we all watch his eyes scan through the pages, and when he’s finished, there’s almost a green tint to his completion. “Why would someone do this?”

“Because it’s how he gets what he wants,” Mia says, her voice breaking as she forces out the words. “People are surprisingly self-sacrificing, so he demands your silence by going after the people you love. He sends flowers to your private dressing room at your rehearsal space with a note reminding you to keep your mouth shut. He sends you pictures from the inside of your house of your mother doing laundry with a red dot on the back of her head. He calls you from an anonymous number to talk about how much work your dad’s golf swing needs when you know he’s out on the course. He leaves pictures of Ana or Elliot or Kate on the the windshield of your car at school. He does everything he can to show you that he can get to the people you love and reminds you over and over again that staying silent is the only way to keep them from getting hurt.” She starts crying and every person sitting inside the closed off vestibule goes stiff.

“Mia…” Christian breathes. She looks up at him with tear filled eyes and shakes her head with shame.

“Christian…. I know who it is.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 43

today-show-logo

“Alright, Mrs. Grey. How’s that?”

I look up at my reflection the mirror in front of me and frown. This morning, I’m going to be making my first national television appearance and the makeup artist at the Today show has painted my lips bright scarlet. It makes my eyes look heavy and my skin more pale, something I don’t need help with. It’s too much.

“Umm…”

“Get that crap off of her,” Lydia says, coming up behind me. “Her makeup should be neutral, flawless, and above all else, understated. She’s an author, not Katy Perry.”

“Right,” the makeup artist says. She seems bitter as she picks up a makeup removing wipe and begins scrubbing my lips down while Lydia leans against the counter and stares at me.

“You ready?”

“Yes.” I try to exude confidence, even if I don’t feel it.

“Good. I’ve just talked to the stage manager and it looks like Lauer is going to try and turn this into a Dr. Phil special. You are not going to let him. People don’t buy sad books, Anastasia. They buy hopeful books. You will not let this interview be about what has happened, you will make it about how you have survived. This book is about strength and the resilience of hope. You got, that?”  

“Yeah. Of course.”

She nods. “Then go get yourself on the New York Times bestseller list. You go on in twenty minutes.”

I smile at her as she pushes herself away from the counter and claps me on the arm, then let out a long, calming breath into the mirror. When my makeup is finished and I’m left alone to collect my thoughts, my eyes flit down to my phone. Unfortunately, it’s 6:50 in the morning in New York, so not even 4 AM in Seattle, which means Christian probably isn’t up yet. Thankfully though, he texted me his reassurances last night so I’d have them to read over and over again before I go on air this morning.

Just go out there and be the woman I fell in love with and you’ll capture the heart of everyone watching.

I smile down at the screen and then glance over my shoulder to make sure no one is coming to collect me for my interview before deciding to try and call Christian anyway. I’m not there after all, and he usually doesn’t sleep as well alone. But, after dialing his number, I wait through a long litany of droning rings before I finally get his voicemail. Ignoring the sinking feeling of disappointment, I leave a message.

“Hey, I’m about to go on Today. Wish me luck. I miss you and love you.”

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn to see a young woman who’s wearing a headset and carrying a clipboard peaking uncertainly at me through a long black curtain. “This is your set call.”

“Thank you,” I tell her, then hang up the phone and check my appearance in the mirror one more time before sliding out of my chair and making my way to the set where I’ll be doing my segment.

To my surprise, there’s already another person waiting there, and he looks as nervous as I do. When he sees me though, his eyes widen.

“Oh! You’re… you’re Anastasia Steele.”

“Grey,” I reply, but the gentle correction only makes his eyes widen further. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”

“No.” He shakes his head as if to center himself and then reaches his hand out for mine. “I’m sorry, I’m Keith Brooks. I’m an author too… I’m recording my segment with Lauer after you for later in the week. I uh… I’m published through SIP. I think your husband owns it.”

“Oh, yeah. He does.” I smile at him. “I worked there last summer.”

He laughs. “Yeah, I uh… I know. They still talk about how good you were, actually. Especially with the stuff about the eReader. From what I’ve heard, I kind of wish you’d stayed and you could have represented me. I’ve watched your publicist running around barking orders at people all morning to make sure you don’t have any surprises during your interview and, hell I don’t even think mine showed up today.”

“No? Who’s working with you?”

“Jack. I mean, Hyde. Jack Hyde.”

“Oh…” I bite down nervously on my bottom lip as I turn to look at Luke, sitting on a chair across the stage from me, glancing interestedly between Keith and I as he sips his coffee and rocks Calliope’s carrier back and forth in the chair next to him. “And Jack? He’s here in New York with you?”

“Yeah, I mean… I think. He was on the fight, but I haven’t seen him this morning. He was hitting the bottle the bottle pretty hard at dinner though, I bet he’s just hung over. I’ve kind of heard that about him…”

“Right.” I swallow awkwardly and glance back at the main set where Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera are talking about today’s big headline. The last time I saw Jack was at the GEH New Year’s Eve Gala and he’d been drunk that night too. He also hadn’t seemed too happy to see me…

What was it he said to me?

“Mrs. Grey, they’re ready for you on set,” the stage manager says to me, breaking my concentration.

“Right,” I smile at her, then turn back to Keith.

“Good luck, and congratulations on your deal. I hope you do well.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Grey. And, you as well.”

With a smile, I shake his hand and then follow the state manager onto the overly lit set, where she gestures for me to take a seat on the couch. Lydia rushes up to me to offer one last bit of advice and then takes my phone while the crew hooks me up to a mic pack.

“Alright, Matt will be here in about 45 seconds,” the stage manager tells me. “We’re going to start on camera three, just him, and he’ll give some background about you and your book. Then we’ll change to camera one, right there, on the both of you. I don’t want you to worry about any of that though, you just focus on Matt. We like these things to feel as conversational as possible.”

“Right,” I agree.

“Good luck.” She winks and then moves hurriedly off the stage while Matt Lauer moves onto the set with a few staff members surrounding him, holding out papers for him to read over while he prepares to change segments.

“Mrs. Grey,” he greets me, holding out his hand for mine. “May I call you Anastasia on air?”

“Oh, please. Ana even.”

“Great.” He smiles and then sits in the sofa across from me, letting one of the assistants powder his face while the stage manager counts us down into the segment. When she points silently at Lauer, he immediately switches into his TV persona.

“For over a year, Seattle based Grey Enterprises Holdings has dominated national headlines because of the successes and scandals of the company’s billionaire CEO, Christian Grey and his longtime girlfriend, now wife, Anastasia Steele. This weekend was no different as their highly publicized elopement has thrust their names back into the news, and today, I have Anastasia Grey here with me to talk about her much anticipated first novel, Escape, which the critics all seem to summarize in one word. Remarkable.” He turns to me. “Thank you for being with us today, Ana.”

“Good morning, Matt.” I smile back at him. “Thank you for having me.”

“So, we have to start this morning with the wedding…”

“Do we?” I joke, wrinkling my nose, and he laughs.

“For weeks all of the details of this lavish ceremony are being reported to the press. The castle just outside of Seattle, what dress you’re going to wear, and the millions of dollars of jewelry on loan from De Beers. Then the day comes and…” his voice trails off.

“And we had private ceremony all on our own.”

“But why?”

“For exactly the reasons you just listed. We didn’t call up The Times or TMZ to tell them what I was wearing or where we were getting married, it all just leaks. You know, someone fits my dress and then talks to a reporter and suddenly it’s splashed all over the paper. Christian and I just wanted one day away from all of that. So, we gave the media the event they all wanted but kept our actual ceremony as a private affair between us and our family.”

“But what about your guests?”

I laugh. “Oh, Christian left them with quite the party. There was a band and dancing, really great food, and favors for all of the guests to take home. My security team just told me this morning that we’re still getting emails thanking us for such a lovely time and congratulating us. I think a lot of them are happy to be apart of the story.” I smile, but his face suddenly goes serious.

“I did notice when you came in this morning, you had a full security detail with you. Is that because of the incident that occurred last March?”

I take a breath. I’ve rehearsed these questions with Lydia over and over again, trying to prepare myself, but somehow, the reminder still triggers an uncomfortable reaction in me and my response comes out sounding a little weak. “Mhmm.”

He gives me a sympathetic smile and then turns to the camera to give a brief synopsis of the attempted kidnapping before cutting away to a video segment that I can watch on the screen behind us. It begins with the audio of Christian’s panicked phone call to the police, reporting me missing. I’ve never heard this before and it throws me off guard. Hearing the desperation in his voice is agony as I remember those terrifying few hours, Christian’s heartbreaking confession afterwards, and the horrifying dreams and terror that plagued me for weeks after I was home again. So, once video segment is over and Lauer turns back to me, I’m feeling a little dazed.

“Terrifying,” he says. “Ana, can you walk us through that day?”

I swallow and stare blankly back at him, the silence between us weighing heavily on me. I can feel the eyes of everyone in the room boring into us as they wait for me to answer and fill the dead air space, but my mind is blank. I glance over at Lydia, standing just off set. This is exactly what she warned me about and she motions for me to smile and keep the conversation upbeat. I take a breath and look back at Lauer.

“It was a horrifying experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It changed me, and the way I look at the world, but… it also gave me strength. That’s the message of my book. Strength in the face of adversity and the resilience of hope. It’s why I wrote this novel and it’s why I’m here today. To share that message.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Lydia beam and punch her fist in the air. Lauer doesn’t seem too pleased that I’ve robbed him of the chance to draw out my own personal horrifying experiences for the sake of engaging TV drama, but he doesn’t miss a beat as he’s forced to follow my lead and change the subject to my book.

I feel a small sense of victory to have most of the segment to discuss what I’ve written rather than the drama that constantly surrounds my life. Matt gives me the chance to talk about the emotions I put into the novel and how healing the entire writing process was. I express what I want out of publishing, which is to find people looking for a lifeline and offer it to them. I want to make people feel hopeful and optimistic after they’ve experienced tragedy.

“I worked through my own trauma thanks to the love and support of my family and through putting what I was feeling down on paper and leaving it on the page. If even one person who is struggling with heartbreak, or loss, or devastation can read this book and come out of it feeling like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, then I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.”

Lauer smiles at me and turns for the camera again. “The book is called Escape, and it’s in stores today. Do yourself a favor, really, and pick up a copy. It truly is a life changing read.” He thanks me one last time and then looks at the camera focused only on him. “We’ll be right back.”

“And we’re off,” someone yells from off set. Immediately everyone, including myself, relaxes.

“Great interview,” Lauer says, reaching out to shake my hand. “Not what I expected… but your passion for this project really came through. You may have a career in journalism.”

“I think I’m going to stick to writing,” I say with a laugh, and he smiles back at me.

“Good-luck, Ana.”

I wait as he turns to walk back to the main stage where Meredith Vieira is still sitting, and then let out a long, relieved sigh. My first, solo, national interview is out of the way.

“Anastasia!” Lydia cries with excitement as she rushes towards me. “That was fantastic! They didn’t tell me about that video cut or I would have stopped it, but you handled it like a seasoned pro! I mean, maybe next time just a little less pause, but phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. Now let’s go get you changed. We’re going to tape for The View and then we’ve got a book signing in downtown Manhattan before we head to Boston and Cambridge tonight for your reading at Harvard tomorrow.”

“Alright.” I stand and wait for Luke to follow me back to my dressing room, where I have approximately seven minutes to change.

“You did good, kid,” he tells me as I separate the dress bag Lydia has labeled The View from the other garments currently hanging on the wardrobe rack. “Personally, I’m a little offended that you seemed to credit your realization that life can go on after tragedy to writing this book rather than to the billion and one times I’ve watched It Happened One Night with you, but you know. You do you, I guess.” He gives me a teasing smile and I roll my eyes.

“Will you get out of here so I can change please?”

“As long as you promise not to wallow in guilt over that gross oversight you made out there.”

“I promise.” He hands Calliope off to the nanny, instructing her to follow stage security so they can load the car seat in the van and we can get out of here on time, then steps back out into the hall and leans against the wall just outside the door. After I’ve very purposefully slammed the door behind him, I let out a laugh through my nose and turn back to the wardrobe rack again. The moment I begin to pull down the zipper though, there’s a noise to my right and I turn just in time to see the bathroom door swing open and someone fly out at me.

“Don’t scream, don’t scream, don’t scream,” the stranger whispers, covering my mouth with his hand. “Don’t scream, it’s okay.”

My body seizes and I can taste something acrid creep into my mouth as the traumatizing memories begin flooding over me and panic sets in, but once the initial shock of his appearance gives way to the rush of adrenaline, I recognize that the man who has a hold of me. It’s Jack Hyde.

He doesn’t look the way the man who grabbed me last time did. There isn’t inexplicable fiery hatred behind his eyes. Instead, he looks almost pained, regretful, and I take that moment of hesitation to shove against his chest and pry his grip away from me.

“Jack, what are you doing in here?” I ask angrily. He frowns and lets out a huff that makes it so I can smell the alcohol on his breath.

“Ana…”

“You need to get out of my dressing room right now or Christian is going to have your job.”

“No… he won’t.”

I feel my face contort at the audacity of his drunken response. “You’re right. He’ll have it because you’re an incompetent fool who should be out with his client rather than stumbling around a televsion studio wasted and stalking my bathroom. What are you doing here?”

“I’m not supposed to be here.”

“No, you’re not.” I agree. “So, let’s go.”

I grab ahold of his jacket and attempt to pull him towards the door, but he doesn’t budge.

“Ana, I’m sorry.”

I turn around, giving him a hard, unsympathetic look, but notice his adam’s apple bob as he swallows, hard. “I never wanted to be apart of this…”

“Apart of wha-” My voice cuts off as he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a knife. Instantly, the panic returns with paralyzing force. My eyes widen with fear as I instinctively take a step back and try to find my voice to call for help. “Lu-!”

He lunges, knocking me to the floor, but as he attempts to climb on top of me, I knee him in the groin and start to scream. The door flies open and Luke comes back into the room, weapon already drawn.

“Back away,” he commands, his voice calm but deadly. Jack tenses but slowly rolls off of me and drops the knife from his hand. “Get up and back against the wall. Do you have any other weapons on you?”

“No.” He takes several paces backwards, hands still raised in the air, until his back is flush against the wall. Luke approaches him cautiously, then reaches out and pats him down without ever losing his sights.

“Why don’t you take a seat, Hyde,” he says, but it’s more of a command than a suggestion. “You and I can have a little talk before they come take you away.”

“You might as well just call them. I can’t…” He swallows again. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“We’ll see.” Luke turns to me. “Ana, Lydia is down the hall. Walk to her, slowly, tell her that you’re not going to make your interview this afternoon, then call Hsu. Tell him we have a man to take into custody.”

Hyde laughs. “You think the police are going to help you?”

“No, I don’t.” Hyde’s face falters with confusion as he stares into Luke’s cold eyes.

“Ana, get out of this room. Now.”

I glance worriedly between the two of them, but nod and quickly back out of the room. The second the door closes behind me, there’s a loud crash from inside that makes me jump but I ignore it and take a steadying breath.

Despite Luke’s instructions, my first priority is to make sure Calliope was put in the car where she was supposed to be and not intercepted along the way. My heart thuds heavily in my chest as I hurry down the hall to the back doors, and I have to hold the wall to keep myself upright. But when I find her safely buckled into her seat, staring up at the small plastic toys spinning slowly over her head from the brace, relief washes through me and I’m able to think clearly once again.

“Give her to me,” I say to the nanny, using fumbling fingers to reach down and unbuckle the seatbelt that holds her carrier in place. Ava gives me a confused look as I pull Calliope from the car, but I don’t take the time to explain what has happened before heading back inside in search of my publicist and my phone.

I grip so tightly to the handle of Calliope’s car seat while I make my way back down the hallway of the studio that the strain in my knuckles actually starts to hurt. The discomfort doesn’t make me ease my hold though. I can’t. Horrible visions run through my mind of someone streaking by and snatching the carrier from my hand, like an old woman’s purse on a busy city street, and the fear that builds inside of me makes the thirty, maybe forty, foot walk from the door to where Lydia is pacing back and forth while she talks on the phone feel like an eternity.

“Hold on a second,” she says to whoever it is she’s speaking with and then pulls the phone away from her mouth. “Ana, what are you doing? We’ve got to get going.”

“We’re not going to make it,” I reply blankly. I’m crashing from the adrenaline rush and, as shock takes over, my body starts to shake.

“What are you talking about? Go get dressed, we’re going to get there with plenty of time.”

“No, you have to…” I swallow and try to clear the racing thoughts that are making it difficult to form a coherent sentence from my mind. “You have to call and cancel. I need my phone.”

“Ana, it’s release day and this is The View. We’re not cancelling. Now, go. Get dressed.”

“Lydia, there’s a man in my dressing room with Luke right now. He was in there waiting for me with a knife. We’re not going to make it to the fucking View.”

“What?” She quickly looks down the hall, and then back at me. “Oh my god, Ana.” Without even offering whoever she’s still on the phone with an explanation, she hangs up and starts to walk down the hall toward my room, but I reach out and grab onto her sleeve to stop her.

“No, no, no,” I say quickly. “Luke is handling it. Just give me my phone!.”

“Your phone? Oh, right.” She reaches into the pocket of her slacks and removes the phone I gave her before my interview. Once I have it in my hands, I glance back in the direction of my room and take a deep breath before slowly flipping through my contacts for the direct line to the FBI agent assigned to our case.

“Hsu.”

“Yes, hi. This is Anastasia Steele, er… Grey.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Grey. What can I do for you this morning?”

“I’m at studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza, Manhattan. I’ve just had someone try to attack me again. Hyde. His name is Jack Hyde, I know him.”

“Are you hurt?” His voice is urgent now.

“No, I’m fine. My CPO was there. We’ve apprehended him.”

“Good. Stay where you are, I’m going to be sending two officers to you to bring him in. Twenty minutes, okay Anastasia?”

“Twenty minutes,” I repeat.

The line goes dead and I take another deep breath to try and calm my pounding heart. Everything around me has taken on a surreal quality, like a dream, and for a moment, I wonder if that’s exactly what this is. I mean, Jack? How did he get involved in this? Sure, he didn’t get the job he wanted and I knew after New Years that he was bitter about it but… enough that he was willing to kill me?

“Should we call security?” Lydia asks.

“Uh… yes. The FBI is on the way so the studio security is going to need to know, but I’ll take care of that. You just focus on clearing my schedule.”

She bites her lip, but eventually nods and scurries away from me to make the necessary calls to cancel all of my remaining appearances for the rest of the afternoon. I continue down the hall, through the rest of the stage crew until I find a security guard standing just off the main set.

He radios in the emergency to his team, but surprisingly is willing to simply stand guard outside my dressing room while Luke finishes whatever he’s doing inside. I’m not interested in finding out what that is or hearing the repercussions of what may be going on, so I remain at the end of the hall, being sure to keep myself and Calliope in sight of as many people as possible, and then try to work through everything that happened so I can be clear and concise when the agents on their way show up and pull me aside for questioning.

The one thing I keep ruminating on is the reluctance I saw in Jack’s eyes. This whole thing felt so much different than last time, sloppier and much less thought out. I mean, Luke was standing right outside my door. If he planned to take me, I don’t know how he thought he would have gotten me out, and if he planned to just kill me, he would have been caught immediately. The question is, was that Jack’s ineptitude or is the man behind this starting to panic and making rash decisions? And if this was his big attempt to get to me, what does that mean for Carter and Atlanta?

Was that all just a ruse?

A new wave of panic crosses over me as I realize that, if Atlanta was a red herring, then Taylor is stranded uselessly down south while Christian is back in Seattle with only Kommer there for protection. Is that enough? My hands fly for my phone and I once again try to call Christian, but when he still doesn’t answer, this time I feel a rush of cold and my scalp begins to tingle with fear.

Again and again, I try Christian’s phone, but I never get through. Several important people from NBC come down to talk to me, looking horrified that I was attacked in their building, but I decline their offers for another room and choose instead to wait in plain sight until the FBI agents arrive. It’s hard to get them to leave me alone, but after ignoring them long enough while I continue frantically calling Christian, they eventually back off. In total, I make thirty two calls, and I get his voicemail thirty two times. Tears prick my eyes as I force myself not to think about why he may not be answering. He’s in the shower. He’s got to be in the shower. Or at the gym. He’s upstairs lifting and the music is too loud for him to hear his phone ring. My body slumps against the wall.

“Please,” I whisper, a plea to the universe, and then tears start to roll down my cheeks.

 

Luke comes out of my dressing room only seconds before the agents Hsu sent arrive, which means I have no time to speak with him before they pull him aside to get the story of what has happened.

“He attacked her, I stopped him,” Luke says simply, nodding in my direction.

“And your hands?” I glance down and see his knuckles are cut and covered in blood, which seems to have also splattered over his pristine white shirt.

“He resisted.”

“Right.” The agent turns to look at the NBC executives once again hovering close by. “Is there a room we can use to interview the witnesses?”

“Of course, right this way.”

We’re led down another hall into a different, much smaller dressing room and then separated so they can take our stories individually. Thankfully, the entire thing happened so fast and without much fanfare that I’m able to answer the questions from the agent interviewing me fairly quickly. Mostly, I tell him about my history with Jack and everything I know of him, but when the agent asks if I could think of anything that would give him motive to help the man trying to harm my husband and I, I again find myself coming up short.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “A job, I guess. He works for Christian and he didn’t get the job he wanted.”

“We’ll see what we can find out, Mrs. Grey. Don’t you worry.” He closes his book and shakes my hand, then leaves me to wait for Luke, who is interviewed for much longer. It’s mid-afternoon before we’re both finally cleared to leave the scene but as Lydia organizes the transportation of all my things, Luke pulls me back into the dressing room so we can talk in private.

“Have you heard from Christian?” I ask immediately.

“What? No, I haven’t had a chance to call them yet… Are you okay?”

“No. I can’t get Christian on the phone. I’ve called over forty times and nothing. His family hasn’t heard from him. Elliot was on his way to Escala to check on him, but he hasn’t called me back. Luke, what if…” My voice cuts off as I can’t force myself to verbalize my darkest fears, so Luke picks up his phone. He works his way through the entire chain of command, but he can’t reach Christian, Kommer, Ryan, or Taylor and no one knows where they are. Each phone call that puts us at a dead end is like a punch in the gut, winding me, until I physically can’t breathe.

“What do you want to do, Ana?” Luke asks.

I shake my head, unable to speak. I don’t know what I want to do. Fly to Seattle, maybe? But what if the reason he’s not answering his phone is because Hsu called him right after we got off the phone and he got a flight to New York? That sounds like something he would do. It’s the first even semi-logical reason I’ve had for Christian’s silence and I cling to that tiny ray of hope in order to prevent myself from falling completely apart.

“What did Jack say?” I ask weakly, another distraction.

“What?”

“Jack. What did he say? Please tell me he gave you something useful.”

He takes a deep breath and sighs. “He doesn’t know who it is.”

I let out a bitter laugh and shake my head. “So he lied to you.”

“No, I really don’t think so. He’s not in this deep like Elena Lincoln or Leila Williams was. Which makes me feel better since I checked up on him and ruled him out as a candidate months ago when we still thought Welch was trying to drum up support to oust Grey from GEH and SIP was listed on Welch’s contacts. He hadn’t received any payments or taken any suspicious leave, so I didn’t think he had been involved, but it turns out he’s not helping him for money. He’s only here because he’s being blackmailed.”

“What?”

“Apparently, he’s got an affinity for some really fucked up shit in the bedroom, particularly with girls who aren’t exactly legal yet…”

“Are you…? Oh my god!”

“Yeah. Anyway, the head guy has pictures and and video of him and some girls that he hacked off his computer so signing up for this plot against Grey was the only way for Hyde to keep the evidence of his perversions from making it into the hands of the police. He was supposed to come for you last night, but he got the wrong hotel.” He fights a very self-satisfied smile and I remember that he’d purposefully convoluted my accommodation arrangements for this exact purpose. “The good news is, if he tries anything to get out of this with the FBI, it’s still not going to work out great for him. From what we know of this guy, he doesn’t seem to have a very forgiving nature when it comes to the people he has working for him not coming through, and this was Hyde’s second assignment. He got this because he’d already fucked up the first.”

“Which was?”

“He’s been waiting for Elena’s manuscript. His job was to use his connections in the publishing industry and put it in the hands of someone who would make sure it hit shelves by summer. But he never got the manuscript. The person who was supposed to deliver it to him, Elena’s contact at the prison who I haven’t been able to track down, never sent it. Well, that isn’t true. He did send it. He just sent it to you, not Hyde.”

“He? As in…”

“No. Not him. Just another one of his henchmen.”

“Did Hyde say who he was?”

He nods. “Isaac Warren.”

“Isaac Warren?” I pause. Something about the name nags at me even though it isn’t familiar. Luke promises he’ll start digging tonight to find out who he is, but before he’s through encouraging me about how positive this development is, my eyes suddenly widen with recognition.

“Isaac,” I repeat. “Oh, my god Isaac. Luke, it’s Elena’s submissive.”

He pauses, considering what I’ve said, and then begins to slowly nod. “From the bar. Holy fuck, he worked at the bar. We still have the employment records that Grey used to hunt down all those girls. If he’s was an employee, we should have his phone number and address. Or an old one that could lead us to where he is now.”

“And if he’s acting as a liaison for Elena…”

“Then he definitely know who it is.” He smiles, and jumps out of his seat. “Come on, I’ve got to get to my laptop. We’ve got work to–”

His words cut off at the sound of my ringtone and when I reach down to pick up my phone and see Christian’s name on the screen, relief more tangible than I’ve ever felt before crosses through me.

“Oh my god, Christian,” I breathe when I answer.

“Ana, what’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Warmth fills my veins at the sound of his voice, distracting me from the worry ladening his gravelly tone. “I mean, I was attacked again but…”

“What!”

“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “It was Jack Hyde. He tried to grab me while I was changing to leave the studio but Luke was here and nothing happened. I’m okay, Calliope is okay, we’re all perfectly safe. The FBI is here now.”

“Hyde?” In just that one word, I can hear the anger in his voice, and when he speaks again, I can hear his temper threatening to boil out of control. “That son of a bitch…”

“They just took him away.” I assure him. “He’s in custody, and he’s going to have to answer for his part in this. But the real point here is that Atlanta was a ruse, Christian. He used Carter to send Taylor on a wild goose chase. You were right, he was trying to separate our security team. Call him. Bring him home. They could try to go for you next.”

“Ana…”

“He talked, Christian. Jack talked. He doesn’t know who’s behind this but he told us the plan was to come for me in New York, not Atlanta, and he gave us a name. Someone who might lead us to him. The person who sent the manuscript and who’s been coordinating contact between this guy and Elena, is Isaac. Her submissive. He knows who he is, Christian. So all we have to do is find Isaac and we’ve got him.” I pause, waiting for his elated or at least relieved reaction, but it doesn’t come. “Christian, did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard you.”

“Then why aren’t you more excited? Christian, we have a lead. A good lead.”

“No, we don’t. We already have Isaac.”

“Wait, what? You do?”

“Yes.” He pauses again. “Ana, the reason I missed your calls this morning is because I was on a flight. To Georgia. It wasn’t a ruse, it’s just… Atlanta wasn’t the target.”

“What do you mean? What the target? Is Isaac there?” He doesn’t answer me right away, and when he does, there’s a nervous quiver in his voice that immediately has every one of the hairs on the back of my arms and neck standing on end.

“Baby…”

“What?”

“Isaac was the contact sent to help Reed. Last night, they were sent to eliminate their target and when Taylor and Ryan went to intervene, all hell broke loose. Several people were severely injured, others were killed. Isaac was one of them.”

My scalp tingles again and my throat goes dry. “One of them?”   

“Ana, baby. I’m so sorry…”

“Who?” My voice quivers and it takes Christian several long seconds to finally answer me.

“Your mom is in the hospital. You need to get here as quickly as you can.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 42

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Riding up the elevator with Carter to our apartment in Escala is a much different experience now than it was last March. Then, he was bouncing up and down with excitement and chatting happily to Kate about the grandeur all around us that he was now very happy to be apart of. Now, he’s silent and still.

The doors open and Christian gestures him inside with the hand that isn’t holding the handle to Calliope’s car seat, then frowns as we step into the great room. It’s dark inside, except for the dozen or so artfully placed candles around the room, and the low burning fire in the fireplace. There’s soft music floating around us and, on the coffee table, a chilled bottle of champagne with two empty flutes and a bowl of fresh strawberries and melted chocolate. On the floor before the fireplace is a makeshift bed comprised of blankets and pillows, completely surrounded by flowers and loose petals.

“Uh… sorry,” Christian says awkwardly. “It’s our wedding night.”

“No, that’s fine,” Carter replies with the same uncomfortable tone. “I’m sorry I’m… interrupting.”

“Have a seat.” Christian nods to the couch and then picks up the remote to his iHome and flips off the music. Luke hits the lights and we all settle down on the sectional, looking expectantly at Carter.

“Tell us what happened,” Taylor says. “Be specific, no detail is too small.”

“Okay,” Carter begins. “I’ve been working with my dad this summer, and it’s been kind of hard. He’s… disappointed in me. I was supposed to get into Harvard law, and I didn’t. I didn’t graduate at the top of my class, my girlfriend did, and when I proposed to that girlfriend, she dumped me. I have nothing to show for my four years at Harvard, and he’s been riding me really hard about it. Anyway, I made an appeal to Harvard Law to try and get in for the fall semester and when I got my second rejection notice, the phone rang. It was some guy…”

“You didn’t recognize the voice?” Taylor asks.

“No.”

“What did he sound like?” Luke chimes in. “How did he speak to you?”

“Um… his voice was very low, deep. I think he sounded like he might be about my dad’s age, but I’ve never really been good at judging that kind of thing. He was calm, like almost too calm. He spoke to me with a kind of familiarity that shouldn’t exist between two strangers. You know what I mean? Like how there’s a difference in how you talk to someone you know versus someone you don’t. He sounded like we were old friends or something. Like he was calling to check up on me because he knew I was having a hard time and he wanted to help.”

“Did he have an accent or use any colloquialisms that might give you an idea where he was from?”

Carter shakes his head. “No. He he was actually very formal.”

“Ana?” Christian asks. He turns to me and I know that he’s checking to see if what Carter is saying matches what I remember from the times I’ve spoken with him.

“Yeah, I think older too. But he didn’t speak to me like that. He sounded like he was taunting me most of the time and there was like a…” I shiver as I recall our last conversation and his voice rings through my ears again. “He was very cold to me.”

“So we have no idea if this is even the same guy,” Christian says, leaning back and running his fingers through his hair in frustration.

“Wait,” Luke says. He gets off the couch and moves into the security office. When he returns a few seconds later, he has a small black box in his hand. “We were able to record the last bit of Ana’s conversation with him at graduation.”

He hits play on the small voice recorder and I feel my body go stiff as I listen to my shaking voice play through the speakers.

Is she dead?

He laughs. Goodbye, Anastasia. Have fun at the arts center tonight with your family. I’ve seen what they’ve done with the place and it looks wonderful. Your graduation celebration will be truly special. Oh, and I’ll see you soon.”

Luke presses stop and looks up at Carter. “Is that the man who called you?”

He nods. “Without a doubt.”

“Good, then we’re on the right track,” Taylor says. “What did he say to you?”

“Well, I answered the phone and he greeted me by name. I didn’t recognize his voice so I asked who he was and he told me it didn’t matter. He was calling because he wanted to help me. I asked what he meant and he said…” He pauses, looking as though he’s trying to remember the exact words before he continues. “Doesn’t it feel terrible when you just can’t get what you want? When you try again and again, but always come up short? When you fail. And then you look around and you see the people who do have everything, everything you want, and you that realize they’re the ones who deserve it the least.”

“And?” Taylor presses him.

“He called those people the takers. People who use other people’s hard work to get ahead, or who steal from others. He said he had a way to get me what I wanted, to correct the imbalance, and if I was willing to help him, he was willing to help me.”

“What did he offer you?” Christian asks.

“Harvard Law.”

“And what did you tell him?” Luke asks.

“Well, first, I asked him what he meant by being willing to help, and he went off on this weird tangent about… well, you, Grey. He asked me if I knew that Ana was going to be expelled last year but that you called and bought her back into the university. He said that was unfair. That her spot could have been given to someone else, someone who earned it. Instead, it went to a…”

“To a?” I press him when he stops and looks at me uncomfortably.

“To a billionaire’s whore.” He gives me an apologetic look, but I simply shake my head and motion for him to continue. “He also said that Grey’s career was a lie. He wasn’t the genius everyone thought he was, he built him empire on lies and then used Ros’s talents to keep it going. He said your entire business model was to steal, to take the hard work of others and claim it as your own, like you built this great thing, but you’ve never actually built anything in your life. He said that even when you get caught, you continue to take. He said that you took from him, that you took Ana from me, and together we could take from you.”

“Take what?” Christian asks. “Ana?”

“I don’t know. He just asked me if I would help him. By then, I’d figured out who he was. That he was the man who tried to kidnap Ana over spring break, and who was trying to hurt her. I knew what he was asking from me, and I thought maybe whatever he asked me to do could help you find him, so I said yes. He said he’d be in touch and hung up without another word. I don’t have your numbers anymore so I looked up the number for GEH and after talking to like, eighty people, I was directed to the security office and talked to Ryan. He flew me out here and now, here we are.”

“I followed the protocol exactly,” Ryan interjects, looking at Taylor. “I got him out and into an unmarked chartered plane without anyone noticing he’d left. He’s here in absolute secrecy.”

“Who drove him to the airport?”

“Wirtz flew down and met him in a public place, smuggled him into a car, and drove to Chattanooga. We used a decoy to make it look as though he’d returned home.”

“Flight staff?” Luke checks.

“Stevens was the pilot, no other staff aboard. They’re at Boeing now, waiting to fly him home.”

“Good,” Taylor says. “This is it, then. This is our chance to get on the inside and find out what he’s planning before he can execute.”

“He didn’t tell you what he was planning?” Christian asks. Carter shakes his head.

“No, he just told me he’d be in touch. Oh, and that someone would be coming to meet me. Someone one who is going to help me with whatever he’s got planned.”

“So he is planning something,” Christian says, getting up from the couch and pacing back and forth. “He’s not threatened or backing off, he’s just planning his next move. And it’s been too long since we’ve heard anything from him. Whatever is coming next, it’s going to be big.”

“We don’t know that,” I argue. “We don’t know that everything we’ve done isn’t just… working the way it’s supposed to. Maybe he did try to target the wedding, he just couldn’t get through security. Leila said they tried to get me in Cambridge before, but couldn’t because of Luke. Maybe we’re finally outsmarting him.”

Taylor shakes his head. “No, he wouldn’t call Reed the day before, if the wedding was his plan. Not with how well he thinks everything through before he acts. He’s got a different target in mind.”

“Her book tour,” Christian says, as though this was the answer he was expecting all along. He sits back down on the couch, dropping his head into his hands for a moment and then scrubbing them over his face. “He’s waiting for us to be separated. For our security team to be spread out. You live in Atlanta, right?”

“Yeah,” Carter says.

“Ana has a stop there next week.”

“I’m on top of it,” Luke says. “In every city we’re stopping at along the tour, we have three separate hotel reservations, all booked under aliases, and only myself and Taylor know where we’re actually staying. We have security arranged for each hotel and secure transportation. I’ve already received the clearance badges for television and radio appearances, and book signings. She’ll never have to leave my side. He’s not going to get anywhere near her on this trip.”

“Which actually may make this the perfect time to try and lure him out,” Taylor suggests. “Draw him into a trap while making him think that he’s got a clear path to Ana.”

Christian shakes his head. “No, I’m not going to use my wife as bait. Absolutely not. I want him to be so sure that there is no way he could be successful in getting to her on the road that he won’t even try.”

“Sir, I understand your hesitation, but if you’ll forgive me, that’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not working. We have done everything to be sure we stay one step ahead of him and he hasn’t made a move. She’s been safe, yes, and that’s fine for now, but we’re no closer to finding out who he is or ending this permanently. We cannot maintain this level of security forever. My team is overworked and mentally exhausted. Sawyer hasn’t even had a day off since March…”

“I’m fine,” Luke interrupts, but Taylor cuts him off.

“As long as he’s hiding, he’s got the upper hand. We need to force him out of the shadows so we can deal with this for real.”

Christian doesn’t respond, and from the look of him, I think it’s because he doesn’t know how. Every instinct he has tells him to protect me, to keep me out of harm’s way, but Taylor is right. As long as this person is still out there, none of us will ever be out of harm’s way. He takes a breath, deflating a little, and turns to look at me.

“You said you wanted to play offense,” I tell him. “It looks to me like we have the inside man Taylor wanted.”

He sighs again and looks back at Taylor. “Okay. She leaves in two days and she’ll be in Atlanta on Friday. What’s the plan?”

“Reed needs people,” Taylor replies immediately. “At least two within close proximity to keep an eye on him and to monitor his activity, including tapping his phone. If we have some people down there keeping him under 24 hour surveillance, we should know everything he knows without him having to reach out to us again, which will limit our risk of exposure and make sure we’re set for whatever comes.”

“Okay, who do we have to spare?” Christian asks, but when Taylor and Luke look at each other, they frown.

“I don’t need three body guards,” I offer. “I trust Luke to keep us safe.”

“No,” Christian says immediately. “I’m not going to lower your security when we’re purposefully trying to draw him to you.”

“But you won’t be. Not really. The whole point is that we’ll have two people with Carter, right? When they try to execute their plan, I’ll have those extra people too. They’ll be on our side and they’ll know exactly what to do to make sure we’re safe because they’ll be in on the plot.”

“We can coordinate,” Luke agrees. “I’ll know what’s coming and we’ll be prepared. We might even be able to make it so he thinks he’s got a clear shot on Ana while in reality, she’s not even present.”

Christian inhales very slowly through his nose and then gets up to pace again. “Fine, but if we’re going to rely on whoever we send with Reed, then they have to be the best.

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says. “I have some names in mind.”

“No,” Christian says. “You. Taylor, you’ll go with Reed, and so will Ryan. Sawyer will stay with Ana and Kommer, you’ll be here with me.”

“Sir,” Taylor protests, but Christian cuts him off.

“That’s how it’s going to be.” He turns back to me, and then looks up at Luke. “Sawyer, you can have the rest of the weekend off, Ana and I won’t be going anywhere. I suggest you fill that time with some practice at the range. If you’re going to be the only person protecting my wife, I don’t want you to be rusty.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke agrees.

“Mr. Grey, I very strongly believe that I should remain by your side. This book tour aside, you are still the primary target.”

“I’ve noted your concerns, Taylor, and I’m choosing to disregard them. Anastasia and Calliope remain this team’s top priority and as head of my security team, I expect you to honor that. I’ll be fine. You can coordinate directly with me once you’re set up with Reed.”

“Mr. Grey…” Taylor tries again, but this time, Christian cuts him off.

“You’ll be on a flight to Atlanta tonight, Jason. I suggest you pack your bags.”

Taylor takes a deep breath, looking as though he’s trying to hold back more arguments, then nods and turns back for the stairs that lead to the servants quarters where he and Gail share a living space.

“I can take them to the airport,” Luke says, getting off the couch. “We have an unregistered car in the lower levels of the garage. If someone is watching the apartment, we should get out of here undetected.”

“Thank you, Sawyer,” Christian says. “Reed, may I speak to you privately in my office for a moment?”

“Uh… sure,” Carter replies.

Christian nods and gestures for the hallway off the great room, but before he follows after Carter, he turns to me and reaches out for my hand. For a moment, I think he wants me to go with him, but he simply helps me off the sofa and presses a soft kiss into my lips.

“I’ll be quick.”

“Oh… okay. I’ll just put Calliope down then.”

“Good. Kiss her goodnight for me.” He kisses me again and then leans in to whisper into my ear. “Don’t take off this dress. I want that.”

I smile, stand up on my tiptoes so I can kiss him on the cheek, then turn to pick up my daughter, still buckled in her carseat, and carry her off to our bedroom. Once we’re alone, I focus solely on Calliope to try and keep my mind from running through all the possible would be scenarios of what we now have to prepare for. Thankfully, since she has to be changed and fed before I lay her in the bassinet by the bed, it’s not difficult to prevent my mind from wandering. Since I’m still in my wedding dress, I have to be meticulous as I’m changing and burping her, but for once, probably because she’s so tired, she lies still and lets me change her with very little fuss. Instead, she stares up at me with wide, captivated eyes, and for the very first time, I think I see her purposefully smile.

“Hi, baby girl,” I whisper, stroking my hand over the soft thin hair on top of her head while I beam down at her. “I married your daddy today.” She stretches her tiny little limbs, her mouth opening into a perfect round “O” as she yawns, and I smile. “We’re a family now. A real family. Just the three of us. And we love you so much. You, sweet Calliope, are a very loved little girl.”

Her eyes droop so I scoop her into my arms and move to the rocking chair Grace and Carrick gifted me for my very first mother’s day. We stare at one another for a long time as she fights sleep and part of me wonders if, even though she’s so young, she knows there’s something special about today and she doesn’t want to miss any of it. But eventually she loses the battle, and once I’ve laid her in her bed and placed the baby monitor next to her, I hurry into the bathroom to freshen up and then take the other monitor back into the great room with me.

It’s been long enough that I assume the security team has already left with Carter and I see immediately that Christian has taken advantage of the time I was shut away with Calliope. The lights have been turned off again so that the room is lit only by the soft flickering light of the candles and the fire. There’s romantic music once again filling the space around me and on the table, next to the bowl of strawberries, melted chocolate, and a new canister of whipped cream, the two previously empty flutes have been filled with champagne. The only thing I don’t see, is my husband.

“Christian?” I call, stepping further into the room, but as I lean forward to look around the corner into the kitchen, I feel a hand trace softly up the bare skin on my back.

“This dress is incredible,” Christian says quietly, from behind me. “You have never looked more beautiful than you do today, Anastasia.”

I bite down on my bottom lip and turn to face him. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Mr. Grey.”

The corner of his mouth upticks into a relaxed, half-smile, but his entire face seems to light up. He pulls me close so that I’m fully pressed against him and then brushes the tip of his nose over mine.

“All for you, Mrs. Grey.”

Heat floods my body as I hear the words for the first time, and while I bask in the joy of it, he leans down to kiss me. The kiss is slow, deep, and when he slips his tongue into my mouth, I feel my body melt into his. His hands move into my hair but don’t pull at the roots. There’s no fiery need burning too hot or fast in either of us. The reaction set off by this one kiss is potent, but controlled. Neither of us intends for this to be quick, and so when I finally pull away from him, my teeth sink into my bottom lip and I move to the table.

“You know, you didn’t have to put me through all that. You could have just told me the other wedding was a rouse.”

He smiles and steps closer. “Secrets only work if you protect them.”

“You don’t think I can keep a secret?”

“From Kate? No. And once Kate knew, Elliot would know. And once Elliot knew…”

I let out a breathy laugh, “It would be on the front page of the Seattle Times.”

“Exactly.”

I laugh again and then my eyes sweep over the strawberries on the table before I glance back up and give Christian a coy look.

“Would you like dessert, my dear husband?”

“Very much, my darling wife.” I can hear the hint of pride in his voice as he says the word, but the joy I take in that for myself is quickly cut short as I turn for the bowl and he once again steps behind me and moves the tips of his fingers up my back. I shiver with anticipation as he moves his hands across the back of my shoulders and begins easing the lace straps of my dress down over my arms. His lips follow the trail of excited goosebumps his fingers leave going down my left arm and as the dress falls to my waist, leaving my breasts exposed, he drops to his knees behind me and nimbly undoes the last of the fastenings holding the rest of the gown in place.

I’m left standing before him in nothing but my panties and the garters attached to my stockings, and he groans in approval as his hands reach up and kneed my behind.

“Turn around,” he says hoarsely. When I do, his face crinkles with obvious want. “Ana, you look… oh, baby, you look…”

“Good enough to eat?” I ask playfully. His eyes glimmer.

“Don’t mind if I do…” I gasp as he leans forward and kisses me over my panties. Through the thin lace, I can feel the heat of his breath and the moisture from his tongue, and instantly, he has me quaking with desire.

“Christian,” I breathe.

He moans and moves his mouth around me for a few seconds more, then sits back on his heels and licks his lips. “Delicious, as always.”

I giggle and he stands, glancing over my entire body one last time before he backs up to the sofa and takes a seat. “Turn around,” he tells me again. “Put your hands on the table and bend over for me.”

I do as I’m bid and then glance over my shoulder at him, watching his eyes darken enticingly as he stares at my only partially covered ass. “That’s quite the view, Mrs. Grey.”

“Oh really?” I take a breath and then begin moving my legs up and down to the beat of the soft music still playing around us, making my ass sashay back and forth. He hums his approval and then leans forward to take one of the glasses of champagne off the table, placing a soft kiss on my behind as he pulls away again.

“Go on.”

I smile and dip down, bending my knees so that I’m fully crouched down with my legs spread, and then slowly rise again until I’m standing with straight legs. My hands move up over my body and into my hair while I swing my hips back and forth, exposing more of my skin to him. I don’t know if I feel more secure, knowing Christian has now fully committed himself to me, or if I’m just too exalted over this perfect day to worry about insecurities, but for some reason, right now, I feel better about my body than I have in almost a year and all I want to do is show it off to my husband.

With my hands still in my hair, I turn my torso to face him, giving him just a peak of my naked breast before I let my hands drag down my body again. When they move past my hips and I grip firmly to my own ass, his breath hisses between his teeth.

“You’re so fucking sexy, Ana,” he whispers. I smile before moving towards him and climbing into his lap. His hands move back to my behind while I straddle him and grind my panties over the very noticeable bulge in his pants. My tongue sweeps hungrily over my bottom lip as the friction between us heightens my already intense desire to have him, but when his hands move up my body to cup my breasts, I quickly slap them out of the way.

“Not yet,” I chide him. “You are far too dressed to be allowed to touch.”

He gives me a crooked smile. “Well, what do you plan to do about that?”

“This.” I reach forward and slowly begin to unravel his tie, taking my time so I can sit up and press my breasts into his face while I pull it out from under his collar. He begins to kiss the curves of my breasts between my cleavage while I work on the buttons of his shirt, but once I have him naked from the waist up, I move from his lap onto the floor before him and very purposefully hold his gaze as my fingers begin work on his belt.

“Yes,” he hisses when I have his pants open and reach down past the band of his Calvin Kleins for his waiting erection. I slide my hand up and down over him for a moment, using just enough pressure to give him pleasure, but not enough to start building him toward any kind of release. His hips buck up, searching for more, and I feel a sense of power course through me that makes my entire body tingle. Right now, this beautiful man is completely mine, and I plan to indulge in him as long as I can for the rest of the night.

“Your mouth, baby,” he pleads. “I want your mouth.”

“Like this?” I drag the flat of my tongue up the entire length of his erection and then swirl it around the head, tasting the bead of precum that has already begun to form there.

“Yes,” he breathes. “Oh, suck me, baby.”

I smile and then engulf him with my mouth, pulling hard with my lips each time I rise up off him. His breathing become more irregular, punctuated with deep groans and shallow gasps at each new sensation of my lips or tongue moving around him. I take him as deep into my throat as I can, willing myself to ignore the threat of my gag reflex so I can swallow more of him each and every time I move my mouth down his extremely hard erection. He grips my hair again, but doesn’t force me further down onto him. Instead, his fingers massage my scalp while he allows me to pleasure him at my own pace.

“Ana, fuck you’re so good. I want you so much, baby. My wife. My beautiful, brilliant, sexy wife.”

I hum my approval as I continue to suck him, then use my hand to grip him firmly at the base of his erection. When I begin moving my fist over him in opposition of my mouth, his legs start to shake.

“Ana, baby. Wait,” he begs, his voice breaking now. “I want to come inside of you…”

“You will,” I promise, laving him with my tongue before taking him back into my mouth. He groans and lets his body relax, tilting his pelvis towards me to give me the best angle. I can feel him grow harder in my mouth, the head of his erection swelling as he climbs closer and closer to the edge. Knowing the end is near, I pull him as deeply into my throat as I can, and as he gasps at the added tightness around him, I feel him pulse inside my mouth, and then his hot release begins to drip down my throat.

“Fuck! Ana!” he cries out, his reverence clear in the way he says my name. I swallow over and over again, keeping my mouth as tight around him as possible while he unravels beneath me, and once it’s over, I start to suck him again. He shudders.

“Baby. Oh fuck…”

Suddenly, his hands cup either side of my face and he’s pulling me off of him, but the second my lips are free, he claims them with his own. His tongue moves through my mouth ardently as he slowly moves off the sofa, pulling me with him, to the bed in front of the fire. I sink easily back onto the pillows and blankets thanks to the sure grip of his strong hands, but once I’m lying flat over the floor, he pulls away from me.

“No,” I pout, but he simply smiles. I watch intently while he reaches over for the bowl of strawberries, selects a particularly plump, bright red one from the top, and then dips it in the melted chocolate.

“Hungry?” he asks, and the salacious tone beneath his voice tells me he isn’t really talking about the fruit he holds between his fingers.

“Starving,” I whisper back.

He pouts enticingly as he reaches down and places the berry against my lips, and I suck the chocolate off before biting the end. While I chew, he reaches for the chocolate again, but instead of dipping the strawberry for a second time, he picks up the entire container and moves it over the top of me.

“My turn,” he says. I watch him tip the bowl and then the steady stream of dark chocolate as it drips down over my body. It doesn’t burn, but it is hot, so I hiss as he continues to pour a line from my chest, over my breast, and down to my stomach. When he stops, he places the bowl back on the table and then gives me a lascivious grin. I bite my lip again, watching intently as he lowers his mouth down to my skin, and then groan as he begins to lick the chocolate from my body.

“Yes. Oh, Chrisitan!” He sucks lightly against me, taking his time as he moves up my body to make sure he’s left no trace of the chocolate behind, particularly over my breasts. When he’s finished, he continues up and kisses me deeply again, so that I can taste the hint of chocolate left on his tongue.

“So, sweet,” I tell him.

“And yet, not enough.” His eyes flash and I feel his fingers move down to pop open the snaps on my garters that hold my stockings in place. He rolls the nylon down each of my legs, then moves up again and hooks his fingers beneath my panties.

Once I’m naked, he turns for the table again, but this time, he picks up the canister of whipped cream. I watch, intrigued, as he shakes it over the top of me and then points the tip down at my mouth. I giggle slightly as he gives me a little too much, so that my cheeks puff out, but as his eyes glint with mirth, he moves the cannister down and begins leaving a trail of small dollops of whipped cream from my navel to my pubic bone.

“Mmm,” he hums. “Now, for my favorite dessert.”

I tilt my hips up towards him as he slowly licks each and every bit of whipped cream from my skin. The wait is agonizing as I anticipate what’s about to come, namely me, until he finally moves down between my legs.

“Mine,” he whispers, hovering over my lower lips. “You, my wife, are finally and completely mine.

“Yours,” I agree, and then he lowers his mouth onto me. I gasp and then tangle my fingers into the blankets at my side. He starts to devour me, giving me no time to become accustomed to the feel of his tongue or his lips before he begins his expert ministrations. I arch my back off the floor, feeling the pleasure radiating from where his mouth moves against me through my entire body. His fingers grip my thighs, opening me further for him, and when I feel his tongue sink inside of me, I begin to tremble.

“Yes, Christian. Oh god, yes!”

“Let me hear you, baby,” he says, keeping his lips against me. “I want you to scream when I make you come.”

I groan as he begins again and then push against him, taking everything I can from him as his tongue flicks against my clitoris. My cries of pleasure fill the room, overpowering the music while I build closer to release and growing louder still when his fingers move through my lips. With an expert skill that comes from years of learning and memorizing my body, he curls his fingers to exactly the place inside of me that makes my toes curl. He pumps his fingers in and out of me in time with each pulse of suction from his lips, and soon the heat burning hotter and hotter inside of me boils out of control and sends me spiraling down into a mindblowing orgasm.

“Christian!” I scream. He groans and presses his face against me harder, pulling every last ounce of pleasure out of me that he can until the quivering between my legs dies out and I’m left panting.

There’s hardly anytime for me to compose myself before he moves up my body and guides his erection inside of me. Immediately, the sudden fullness causes the pleasure to spike again. I reach up and wrap my arms around him but as he pistons in and out of me, I end up scraping my nails down his back, making him groan and thrust harder. His mouth comes down on mine, his insistent tongue moving forcefully, frenzied even.

“I love you, Ana,” he pants, his voice strained with his own pleasure as he continues to pump in and out of me, and it drives me crazy. I want him, all of him, as deep and as close to me as possible.

“I love you too, Christian,” I reply. “Hold me tighter. Love me, baby.”

“I do. Today, you’ve made me the happiest man alive. My wife. My love. My life.”

I whimper and pull his mouth back down to mine, then push against him so that he rolls off of me.

“Ana, what are you…” he begins, confused and a little indignant as he slides out of me, but his words cut off when I quickly throw my leg over him and then ease down onto his erection again. “Oh… fuck, baby.”

I throw my head back as I ride him, not holding back the cries of ecstasy that escape my lips as I feel him stretch me over and over again. His hands reach up and cup each of my breasts and he pinches my nipples tightly between his middle and index fingers. I moan, wishing I could feel his mouth on my breast again but not daring to ask for it as his erection hits me in exactly the right place to electrify my body each and every time I fall down on him, and I’m desperate not to lose it. I can feel the heat spreading through my body again and even though, after a while, my thighs begin to burn from my aggressive pace, I ignore it and hold out for the reward I know will be worth the discomfort a hundred times over.

“I’m close,” I breathe. “Fuck, baby. You going to make me come.”

“Keep riding me, Ana,” he commands. He sits up, pulling my body against his as I continue to move up and down over the top of him, and gives in to my silent wish, lavishing the nipple on my breast with his tongue. When he pulls it gently with his lips, I can’t hold back any longer. I come, hard, my insides gripping him and taking from him all he’s worth, and as I convulse around him he groans and tightens his grip around me, almost to the point where I think he might leave behind bruises.

“That’s it, baby. Come for me. Oh god… Ana!”

My orgasm is heightened when I feel the faint ripple of his release inside of me, and then the sharp bite of his teeth against my breast. His muscles tense as he fucks me through his own orgasm, trying to prolong mine as long as possible, and when we finally come down, we’re both completely drained. I collapse on top of him, unable to hold myself up anymore. It feels as though all of my muscles have turned to liquid. But instead of shifting me off of him and into the crook under his arm at his side, he simply wraps his arms around me and holds me tightly against his chest.

“I can’t imagine it ever gets any better than this,” he whispers, turning his head and kissing my hair. “Making love to my beautiful wife. This, what I feel right now, has to be the purpose of life.”

I feel a tingling sense of pleasure at his words, and then force myself to sit up so I can look into his eyes. “I know. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything greater in my life than love you. I meant what I said to you over the alter. You are my dream, Christian. Thank you for letting me live it.”

He smiles. “Believe me, the pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Grey.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 41

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I stand silently, watching Kate pull Ros’s dress out behind her. Once she’s perfect and assured she won’t trip over the silk train of her dress, she reaches out to take Luke’s arm and they disappear through the doors down the long aisle. Elliot moves to stand in the place they’ve vacated and holds his elbow out for Kate, but she holds up a finger for him and turns back to me.

“Are you ready?”

I nod, or at least I think I do. I can’t feel anything. But she smiles at me all the same before turning back to Elliot, hooking her hand through his outstretched arm, and moving out into the gardens to the slow melody of Pachelbel’s Canon.

I wait, shaking, until the final notes from the lavish string quartet die out and I hear the first droning tones of Wagner’s traditional wedding march begin. With a breath I hope fills me with courage, I take a step forward and the eyes of hundreds of people turn to face me. Several cameras raise up into the air, pointed directly at me, waiting to catch any slip up or fall so they can feed the hungry media machine that has focused all of it’s attention on this day. Under their expectant gaze, I freeze.

I can see Christian at the end of the aisle, but he looks so far away. My knees feel weak and my body won’t stop trembling… I have no idea how I’m going to make it to him. Someone near me coughs, urging me to start walking so I lift my foot and try to pull myself forward, but I can’t. It feels as though something is holding me back, and as I struggle against whatever force is holding me in place, I realize it’s the dress. No matter how hard I struggle, I can’t seem to drag it down the aisle and as I look up at Christian, I realize he’s somehow gotten farther away.

After what feels like an eternity of me stuck in place, one of the people from the endless rows of chairs stands, and for a moment, I think they’re going to help me get down the aisle. But then another person stands, and another, and as they all begin flowing into the aisle, they surround me. Crowding me. Touching me and still moving closer and closer… I scream for them to stop, but the continue to pack into the space around me, tighter and tighter until it feels like I can’t breathe. I can no longer hear the music, I can’t see Christian, and I can’t move. I’m suffocating, and just as I think I’m going to pass out, I feel a pair of cold hands wrap around me from behind, covering my mouth so I can’t scream.

“Gotchya!”

 

I wake with a start, shaking and panting heavily to try and catch my breath. The light in the room is muted gray as the first hint of dawn creeps through the windows of mine and Christian’s bedroom, telling me the day has finally come. My wedding day. The happiest day of my life, and yet, I’m filled with dread.

I let out a long, steady breath, trying to quell my nerves as I look at the place in the bed next to me, but they’re only heightened when I find it empty. Christian, of course, isn’t supposed to be there. He stayed with his parents last night so he wouldn’t see me today until I walk down the aisle. But Kate, she should be here. She was when I fell asleep…

I peak over at the bathroom door and find there’s no light streaming out beneath it, but as the residual fear of my dream sends me into full blown panic mode, I notice that her phone and the charger next to the bed are gone, along with the bag she left against the wall. Best guess, she snuck away in the night to be with Elliot.

It isn’t a surprise. Ever since we got back from Vegas, they’ve been inseparable. Literally, as I’ve barely seen her face over the last 24 hours because it’s remained constantly attached to Elliot’s. In the span of one night, they’ve somehow let everything from the past go and instantly fallen back in love. I suppose the way I did with Christian, which just makes me feel guilty for being annoyed that she didn’t stay the whole night with me. I want to be happy for her, and I am. I want her to enjoy this time reconnecting with the man she truly loves, but right now… I need her to be here. I need my best friend to talk me down and tell me that everything is going to be wonderful today because, right now, I don’t feel like it’s going to be. But instead, I’m alone.

I glance over at Calliope, sleeping soundly in her bassinette, and then climb out of bed. I’m hoping some fresh air may help calm my nerves, so I pull my thin silk robe from the bathroom, wrap it around me, and step out onto the balcony. The morning breeze is warm and filled with the scent of the ocean from the sound, but the tranquility I find in that is dashed when I look over the metal railing at the street below and find a hoard of people already waiting on the sidewalk for me to leave Escala and make my way to Lakewood. There are lights set up in the street for reporters, which seems to be causing a traffic jam, adding to the number people surrounding me. Closing me in.

And so the circus begins.

With a huff, I turn around and storm back inside, but when I slam the door behind me, the glass quakes and the noise wakes Calliope.

“Fuck,” I hiss, then rush to her bedside. I try to calm her with sweet words as I ease her from her bed and into my arms, but she continues to scream until I carry her out to the kitchen, where we find Gail making coffee.

“Oh, Ana! It’s here, it really finally here!” she cries when she looks up and sees me holding my screaming baby. I try to smile, but I think it’s more of a grimace. Thankfully, my lack of response goes unnoticed because she turns to pull some stored breast milk from the refrigerator to heat up, and Luke comes up along the side of the counter. He looks exhausted as he brushes his hand over Calliope’s head and then moves to pour himself a mug of coffee.

“How are you feeling this morning?” he yawns.

“Anxious. Are you okay? You look beat.”

He yawns and nods again. “I’ve been up for a few hours helping Taylor coordinate everything for the wedding. The whole team’s on it to make sure we don’t have any surprises, and… there’s just a lot of moving pieces. I just got off a call with your groom to go over the plan for today.”

“Thank you, Luke,” I say gratefully. “For everything. You’re the best bridesman a girl could ask for.” He chuckles and then leans over to kiss me on the cheek.

“They’ll be here soon to start on your hair and makeup. Until then, I’ll be in Taylor’s office if you need me.”

I smile as he pulls away, and then reach across the counter to take the bottle Gail has prepared for Calliope.

“Can I fix you anything to eat, dear?” she asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t think I can eat…”

“I’ll get you some fruit. It’s too big of a day to go through on an empty stomach.” She beams at me again before turning for the fridge and I carry Calliope over to the sofa and flip on the news to watch while I feed her. The newscasters are just changing segments from the weather, which promises to be another perfect summer day, to their top story, coverage of the Grey Wedding. My stomach clenches as a voiceover guides me through my entire past, including interviews with several people from Montesano who give insights to the person I was growing up. As they talk about my acceptance to Harvard, the narrative changes to my relationship with Christian, and the countless headlines that have followed us over the past year, including clips from the interview we did last summer. They splash pictures from our engagement announcement across the screen, along with video clips from the GEH gala we attended on New Year’s Eve, then breeze through the kidnapping attempt to talk about my dramatic delivery.

The segment ends with a statement provided by Christian, which is put up on the screen while the voiceover reads it aloud, and then we go to a live feed from Thornewood Castle, where the on-site reporter gives in depth details about everything they know. My dress. The cake. The flowers. The guest list, which includes Seattle’s most notable names. There’s a countdown clock in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, ticking away the hours left until the ceremony begins, and for some reason, it feels like I’m watching on a bomb that’s going to detonate and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Bile rises into my throat while I watch the live feed of Kommer and Ryan stopping a van trying to enter the gates, checking their credentials before waving them through, but just as I fear I’m going to have to run from the couch to throw up, the elevator pings behind me.

I swivel around, hoping it’s Kate, but it isn’t. Still, I feel an equal sense of comfort and relief when I see my father walking towards me. He’s already dressed in the handsome black jacket and blue slacks that make up his military dress uniform and I smile at him as he hands me a to-go cup of hot tea from my favorite coffee shop around the corner.

“Thank you, Daddy.”

“Of course, sweetheart. I don’t get to do much today, the least I can do is comfort you the best way I know how. How’re your feet? Toasty warm?”

I suck my bottom lip into my mouth and shake my head. “No. I think I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. I don’t know if this is normal nerves or not, but I feel like I’m going to fall apart. Daddy… I don’t know how I’m going to do this.”

He laughs. “The morning I married your mother, I forgot how to put socks on. I spent twenty minutes staring at them like I’d never seen a sock in my life. It’s perfectly natural to be nervous, baby girl. This is a big day. Your whole life is going to change. But this is what you want, right?”

“Yeah,” I reply hesitantly, trying to hide my shaking hands in Calliope’s blankets. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s just nerves.”

He takes a deep breath and puts an arm around me. “Can I ask you something uncomfortable?”

I look up at him, waiting for him to ask me if I’m having doubts about spending the rest of my life with Christian. Thankfully, that is the one thing about today I am absolutely sure I about. If I could some how make everything about this wedding disappear except for the two of us, I’d be fine. Elated even. It’s everything else that has my stomach churning.

“Are you maybe regretting your decision not to invite your mother?” he asks.

I’m taken aback for a moment, surprised by the question, then scoff. “No. Absolutely not. After what she did to Christian, for she put him through… I want nothing to do with her.”

“She called me this morning.”

“I’m sorry.” My tone is blunt and it makes him frown.

“She wanted me to wish you luck, and tell you that she loves you. She calls me a lot now to ask about you, and Calliope. She really misses you, Ana.”

“Well, she should have thought about that before she tried to ruin the lives of everyone I love. I don’t trust her, Dad. She lost that, and I have no room for people in my life who I can’t trust.”

He nods and grips my arm with the hand still draped over me. “That’s fair. I get it, Annie. I know why you’re angry and I respect your decision to keep your distance. I just want you to know that if a time ever comes when you’re not angry anymore, or you miss your mom, she’s waiting for your call. She’d pick up now if she’s the one you really need to talk to…”

“No. I have nothing to say to her.” I feel a dry sting in my throat that precedes tears, but I quickly swallow to push it down. I’m having enough anxiety today without worrying about my mom.

“Ana,” Luke calls from the foyer. I turn and watch him punching the code into the elevator keypad that will unlock it for anyone who doesn’t have a master code. “Your beauty crew or glam squad or whatever ridiculous word Kate uses is here.”

“Thanks, Luke.”

“Here,” my dad says. “I’ll take the baby. You just relax and enjoy what you can of this day, okay? It’s just one day, baby. And then, you have forever.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” I hug him, and then shift Calliope into his arms before taking a long pull of my tea and getting off the couch to meet the team of people hired to make me beautiful.

 

It feels as though everything turns to chaos the moment the wedding preparations begin. Between being pulled this way and that way, poked and prodded, baked under hot rollers, and choked over too much hairspray, my phone starts ringing off the hook. My dad and Luke try to field most of the calls coming in, but there’s only so much they can do without my approval. They’re not comfortable making hard, fast decisions for me, the way Kate would, and while my make-up artist begins painting over my face, I find myself desperate to have her here with me again.

Where is she?

While I’m having my nails done, the only thing I have to listen to is the panicked buzzing of everyone around me or the continued coverage of my wedding on the TV, both of which just cause my anxiety to mount even higher. My mouth feels dry, my entire body is tingling, and I can’t seem to form coherent thoughts or focus on any one thing with real clarity. Anytime anyone comes to speak to me, it feels as though they’re talking at me, in another language, and while I’m trying to decipher what the woman doing my nails is asking me, there’s a sudden flurry of movement behind me, towards the window.

I turn and see a K5 news helicopter circling the building. There’s a camera pointed directly at our apartment so Luke instructs anyone with free hands to bring in the decorative screens form the billiard room to hide any view of me getting ready from the windows. I lower my head into my arms over the table where my nails are drying but until I’m fully shielded again, it feels as though I’m stuck inside a glass fishbowl and the walls are closing in around me. While the strange tingling sensation increases throughout my entire body, I wonder if this is what it feels like before you have a heart attack.

Finally, when I get out of my chair and one of the stylists starts placing flower pins into my hair, I’m alerted to the sound of the elevator and I turn to see Kate walking through the foyer, followed by Grace and Mia, all carrying their dress bags.

“Oh my god, Ana!” Kate cries, skipping across the great room. “You look so beautiful!”

I gawk at her. “Where were you?”

“Oh, um… Elliot and I–”

I shake my head, and her words cut off. “Katie, I-I…”

“Miss Steele?” It’s our photographer, and he gestures with his head to Kate, Mia, and Grace. “We’re running a little behind schedule. If I could have the three of you change so we can get some pictures?”

“Oh…”

Kate beams and takes me by the hand, pulling me back towards the bedroom where Luke has left my dress. But as I’m lead through the halls, I feel almost as though I’m in a daze. I think I may have missed my opportunity to have a real one-on-one with Kate this morning and I really needed it. This isn’t normal nerves, I can’t trick myself into believing that no matter what the people around me say. And now, not even having Kate with me is making me feel better. I’m too deep into this. Or maybe my best friend just isn’t enough right now.

I need Christian.

If I could just see him for one minute, have him hold me, and remind me what I’m doing all of this for, I could be okay. I’ll be fine. I just need to see him.

“Okay,” Kate says once we’re in the bedroom. “Mia, will you help me with Ana’s dress please?”

“No, wait!” I stop her. “Kate, can you call Christian for me and ask him to come here? I need to see him for a second.”

“Ana, he can’t see you before the wedding!” she chirps, still too overly excited and happy to really read my current panic.

I shake my head. “No, Kate, please. Call him. Right now. Please call him.”

That makes her take notice, and I watch the worry slowly spread across her face. “Ana he’s… he’s already gone. He went to the venue early, he’s there waiting for you.”

My stomach clenches, and I feel winded. I place my hand over my chest, trying to calm my racing heart, and she wraps an arm around me.

“We’ll be there soon. We’ll get you in your dress, take some pictures, and be on our way. You can see him once we get there, okay?”

I nod, but don’t feel the conviction behind the sentiment. “Fine, I just need a second, okay? You just… get dressed first. Please.”

“Okay.”

Grace takes her dress upstairs to change, which I expect is partially because she’s secretly searching for Calliope, but both Kate and Mia strip down right in the middle of my bedroom and pull their dresses from their respective bags.

I didn’t get to be there for Kate’s final fitting so I’m initially much more concerned with her dress. It’s long, made of fine shimmery silver silk that catches the light beautifully, and thankfully the fit is perfect. It hugs her body in a way that reminds me of my original wedding dress. She looks perfect, so I turn to examine Mia.

She’s not a bridesmaid, but as family, Christian wanted her to have something special to wear as well. Her dress, also silver, is a much more simple silhouette than Kate’s, but as I watch her change, it’s not the dress that catches my attention. In her side, just below her ribs but stretching all the way down to her hip bone, is a cascade of very notable deep red lines.

Suddenly, the fog of my anxiety is pushed aside and I’m able to think clearly for the first time today. I leap from my chair and reach Mia in two long strides, then yank the dress back down around her waist and lean in to examine her body. From this close, I can see that the lines in her skin aren’t just from clothes pressing too tightly into her body and leaving marks or even scrapes.

Cutting. It’s definitely cutting.

“Amelia, what is this?”I breathe in shock.

“Uh, n-nothing,” she stutters, hurriedly trying to cover herself with the dress again. Kate walks over to see what the fuss is about and when she lays eyes over unhealed slits in Mia’s skin, her mouth falls open in disbelief.

“Mia…”

“What is this, Mia?” I demand. “Did you do this to yourself?”

“No, it’s just a scratch. I fell during rehearsal, it’s nothing.”

“This is not a scratch, they’re perfect lines. This was done on purpose, with a razor blade. You did this, didn’t you? Why would you do this?” She doesn’t answer, so I turn her towards me, forcing her to look into my eyes, and grip her tightly by the arms. “Mia, what is going on with you?”

“It’s nothing, Ana.”

“Mia…”

“It’s nothing! I’m fine!” She worms out of my grip, letting her dress fall to the floor, then sprints into the bathroom and locks the door closed behind her. I mash my lips together and storm after her, pounding my fists against the door.

“Amelia Grey, open this door right now.” She doesn’t answer. “So help me, Mia, I will have Luke come in here and take this door off the fucking hinges, open the goddamn door!”

“Easy there, Christian…” Kate scolds me, coming up behind me and placing a hand on my shoulder. “You know you’re not going to get anywhere if you yell at her. She doesn’t respond to that”  I take a breath, push down the surface anger, and gently rest my head against the door.

“Mia, come out please,” Kate tries, but even with her soft, encouraging tone, the door remains closed.

“Mia… I’m sorry for screaming at you,” I tell her. “You just mean so much to me. I love you very much, like my own sister, and I just want to know what’s going with you so I can help you. I know something is wrong. I’ve seen a change in you since I’ve been home, a big one. You’ve been acting out, taking risks you know you shouldn’t, putting yourself in harm’s way, avoiding your family… It was all fun and games when it was jet skis and jumping over the side of yachts, but ditching security in Vegas and now hurting yourself is taking this to a dangerous level. I think you’re crying out for help and I want you to know that I can hear you, and I can see you. I’m here, Mia, and you know that I love you and I would do anything for you. I want to help. Please, just open the door and talk to me.”

I wait for a beat of silence, and then the door opens. She stands there in the open doorway with tears rushing down her face, then throws herself into my arms. I catch her and hold her tightly against me, dragging my hand softly over her back as I rock her back and forth.

“Why are you cutting yourself, Mia?” I ask again.

“To punish myself,” she sobs. “I deserve it, Ana. I hate myself.”

“I don’t know how you could.” I pull her back. “Not with how much we all love you. Tell me what happened.”

“Everything is my fault. If I hadn’t been so selfish last year and never agreed to work for Elena, none of this would have ever happened. If I would have never ran away, if you hadn’t found me, if no one ever found out… it’s all my fault, Ana.” She covers her body again, her hands shaking, and breaks down into tears again. “So many people have been hurt, and it’s all my fault.”

“Mia, no…” I pull her into me as she sobs. “Hey, stop. You’re not a bad person. You got caught up in something too big for you, and you made bad choice, but no one was hurt because of you. You did the right thing when you told the truth, I promise.”

“No… I really didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.” I can hear the plea in my voice as I will her to believe me, but it doesn’t have any effect on her. I hadn’t realized how much what happened last summer affected her, she’s been so well composed… but as I think through the last few months, I realize that might not be true. We’ve all just been so distracted by what’s going on in our own lives. My pregnancy, Carrick’s cancer, the omnipresent threat of whoever is after us, it’s all overshadowed her. Hell, now that I think about it, I think she even tried to reach out to me. Back when she tried to tell me about how much losing Kate as someone to talk to had devastated her. She needed to talk, and instead of just filling that space and right then and there telling her that I was there for her, I just tried to reassure her about her place in Kate’s life. I let her down. We all did.

“Jesus, I’m so sorry, Mia. I didn’t realize how much what happened traumatized you. But of course it did. You were attacked, violated… I know better than anyone what that feels like. We should have put you in therapy. I don’t know why we… Fuck, I’m so sorry, Mia. We will, okay? Once the wedding is over, we’re going to get you some help, someone to talk to. You’re not alone. You’re not a bad person. We love you. You know that, right?”

She bites her lip and shrugs, so I reach up and brush a tear away from her cheek.

“I do. I really do.”

“I love you too, Ana,” she says. “I’m sorry I’m ruining your day too.”

“Are we ready?” We all turn and watch Grace breeze into the room, but when I release Mia and turn towards her, her eyes too fall on the marks in Mia’s skin, and, as she realizes what they are, her face goes from rosy, to white, then to green.

“Oh my god, Mia…”

I stand aside and let Grace come examine her daughter. She’s a doctor, so she should know how best to deal with this. We can talk later about what she’s said to me and getting her in therapy. Christian will make sure that happens as soon as possible. Hell, maybe even tonight…

As Grace takes Mia out of the room so they can talk, Kate pulls me back to my dress. But while I look at it, hanging there, I immediately feel my muscles tighten again, the anxiety doubled now because of my added guilt over Mia. Fuck, how did this all become such a mess.

“Ana?” Kate says, trying to get my attention. I turn to look at her, and she brushes a tear away from my cheek that I didn’t even know was there. “Mia’s going to be fine, you don’t have to worry about her right now. It’s your wedding day. Let’s get you ready, okay?”

“Okay,” I breathe.

I stand as still as possible as Kate ties me first into the corset, then the multiple layers of petticoats. As she ruffles the skirts, I close my eyes and try desperately to escape to my happy place. Somewhere where there’s no media frenzie, or gigantic over the top wedding, or crazed psychos who could jump out of the shadows at anytime and send this all crashing to the ground… The bedroom on the yacht with a cool ocean breeze floating in through the open windows, the suite at the Fairmont Olympic where Christian and I spent Valentine’s Day, a cozy bed and breakfast tucked away in the snowy forest of Vermont. All places where it’s just Christian and I. Alone.

Imagining each place help immensely to calm my racing heart, until Kate asks me to lift my arms, and I feel the weight of the dress as she slides it over me. Once the buttons are all done up in the back and Kate steps away to admire the full picture, something inside of me feels as though it breaks and I lose all pretense of holding it together.

It’s like I suddenly can’t breath. The weight of the dress is crushing me, suffocating me, pulling me back into my nightmare from last night. My skin feels like it’s on fire, like I’m burning alive inside the dress, and I can’t take it.

“It’s perfect, Ana,” Kate smiles. “You look-”

“Take it off,” I cry out.

“What?”

My hands reach back for the buttons but I’m too panicked to summon the dexterity necessary to get the dress off. “I can’t breathe, please take it off. Take it off. Get it off of me!”

Kate moves as quickly as possible and starts to undo all of the buttons while I break down into tears. When it’s finally unfastened and pools into a cloud of lace and silk at my feet, I crumple to the floor and sob.

“Ana… you’re shaking. What’s wrong?”

“I can’t do this, Kate. I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.” I bury my hands in my face as I cry and Kate wraps her arms around me. “What do I do? Help me, Kate, please. You have to tell me what to do. This isn’t what I want. It’s too much, this is all too much. I don’t want the castle or the gardens or the grand ballrooms. I don’t want to pose and smile for the media and I don’t want to have hundreds of people I don’t even know staring at me while I vow to spend the rest of my life with the man I love. I can’t do this!” I collapse into her and my entire body shakes as the gut wrenching sobs work their way out of me.

“Then don’t…” she whispers at last.

“Don’t?” I repeat, looking up at her with confusion.

“Don’t. You don’t have to do this, Ana. It’s not supposed to be like this. You’re not supposed to feel like this on your wedding day. I mean, look at you.” She swallows. “Is it just the wedding?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just want to be sure that it’s the wedding… that you’re not changing your mind. About… Christian.”   

I shake my head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Kate.”

“Okay, this is easy then. We just forget about the wedding and we do this a different way.”

“I can’t just leave him at the alter. I could never do that to him.”

“Then what do you want to do?”

“I want to marry him.”

I take several deep breaths, letting each of them out in slow, controlled gusts, and then reach for the dress again. But as I try to pull it up over my body, I start to hyperventilate.

“Okay, no. We’re not doing this,” Kate says, and she starts tearing out the ribbon on the back of my corset. Once I’m completely stripped down, she goes to my dresser, pulls out a pair of sweatpants and Christian’s Harvard t-shirt, and tosses them to me.

“We’re going to go on a drive. Get away from the crowds and the media and everything to do with the wedding. When you’re ready and only when you’re ready, we’ll get you married.”

“Okay,” I agree. I start to get dressed and Kate calls Luke into the room so he can put Calliope in her carseat while she makes sure we have everything else we need. There are several protests from everyone in my apartment as Luke and Kate lead me through the great room, but they’re ignored and even the small amount of control I feel just being able to say no to someone feels liberating. Though perhaps not as much as the elevator doors closing and drowning out all of the noise behind us.

Thankfully, with the Rolls Royce Phantom Christian reserved to take me to Thornewood waiting out front, none of the photographers are watching the garage. We decide to take Luke’s car, as it’s less recognizable than either mine or Kate’s, and once Calliope and I are covered in the backseat, Luke is able to sneak us out undetected and drive off towards the highway.

I stay down as long as possible, which ends up being all the way to Edmonds, where, to my surprise, we board a ferry. Once we’re aboard, Luke takes Calliope to walk her around the deck while Kate moves me to the front seat and tries to fix the damage I did to my hair and makeup during my breakdown. Thankfully, she’s as good as she is because when I saw myself in the mirror for the first time after we stopped, I thought there was nothing that could be done. Once she’s finished though, I’m as good as new. If I can just find a sense of peace about this whole thing, then once we get back to Lakewood, I should be able to just slide into my dress and make my way down the aisle, no one the wiser of our little detour. However, right now, that still seems like a big if.

“Distract me, please. Talk to me about work or Elliot or something.”

“Okay, um… well, he knows about the surgery.”

“What?”

“Yeah, when had sex in Vegas, he saw the scar. I tried to play it off as a souvenir from that ski accident Christian told your family that I got in, but he spent too much time taking care of Carrick last spring to fall for that. He knew right away.”

“Oh my god, what did he say?”

“A lot. He had like… a full on breakdown over it. He said he couldn’t believe that I would do that for his family when I didn’t have to, when we weren’t even together anymore. He said if he would have known, things would have been a lot different and he wouldn’t have been with Gia as long as he was, but I told that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid. I wanted him to be with me because he loves me, not because he felt obligated. And then he told me that he never stopped loving me and he never would. He promised that he was in this for good and… I believe him. It’s not a marriage proposal but it’s a promise for forever. And in the end, that’s all I ever wanted from him. Forever.”

I nod. “If that’s what’s going to make you happy, then I’m happy for you.”

She smiles and then looks up while a disembodied voice announces our arrival in Kingston just as Luke appears around the other side of the car and begins to put Calliope back in her carseat.

I take a deep breath and look at Kate again. “So, are you going to tell the rest of the Greys?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But today is about you, and your dream coming true. It’s your day, Ana, now sit back, relax, and just remember that in just a few short hours, you’re going to be Mrs. Christian Grey and the two of you are going to live happily ever after.”

I smile. “Thank you, Kate.”

 

For the most part, we drive in silence. I think it’s because Luke and Kate are trying to give me the opportunity to give myself a little pep talk in the back seat, but what it really affords me is the chance to stare at Calliope and play with her in her car seat. Nothing has been more reassuring up to this point and I think that’s it’s because the eyes that stare up at me in wonder are also Christian’s eyes. Finally, through our daughter, I feel some kind of connection to him, and the love I feel as I stare down at her and kiss her cheeks and play with her tiny little fingers is exactly the reminder I needed. Just one moment to feel the love that is worth everything in the world to me.

We’re on the 101 North, which loops all the way around the peninsula, so I assume that’s the plan to get us back to the wedding venue. I even have a passing thought that I may be able to draw the final bit of strength and confidence I need when we drive past Montesano, but as we reach the curve in the road that will start to take us south through Forks and down along the Pacific coast, Luke makes an unexpected right turn.

“Wait, where are we going?” I ask. “You need to go south…”

“We’ll get you to your wedding, Ana,” Kate assures me from the front seat. “There’s just something you should see first. Something to put all of this into perspective for you.”

“Um, Kate… I’m sure whatever you have planned is great, but we’re going to be late. We barely have enough time to make it there as it is…”

“Don’t worry,” Luke says. “They’ll wait for you. It’s not like the wedding can go on without you.”

I frown and look up at the passing road sign. The longest possible town is only 35 miles away, which makes sense as we should be hitting the ocean soon, so I decide to just text Christian and let him know that I’m on my way. Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of the forest so I don’t have any service, and that doesn’t improve when we start winding along the coast, so I never get the chance.

The speed limit slows as we drive through each tiny little fishing town along the way, and everytime I look at the clock, I feel my nerves spike again. Over and over, I tell them that I’m fine, I’m ready, and that we should turn around and head back, but they remain silent.

“Okay, I get it!” I tell them as we pull into Neah Bay. “You’re trying to make me think we’re going to miss the wedding to put it in perspective that I do actually want to go through with this. Job well done. I don’t want to miss my wedding, so can we please turn around?”

“Not quite,” Kate says. I let out a frustrated huff as we, but as we reach the end of the town, I see there is a roadblock set up, with a sign that forbids through traffic. For the first time in my life, I think I’m actually grateful for road construction.

We come to a stop and an officer climbs out of a parked cruiser and approaches our car. “I’m sorry, the Cape Flattery vantage point is closed to tourists today. Only authorized personnel are allowed past this point.”

Luke reaches into his back pocket, pulls out his wallet, and hands the officer both his state ID and his GEH security badge. “I’ve got Anastasia Steele in the car,” he says.

The officer peers back at me, looks down at the carseat on my left, then hands Luke his IDs back and waves us forward. I turn to look back at him as we drive up the long winding hill, utterly confused, and then turn to Kate.

“What’s going on?”

Kate smiles. “You’ll see.”

I stare anxiously through the windows as we twist our way up the mountain, but the only thing I can see is trees. My brain wars between worrying over the clock ticking down the hours to my wedding and my need to know what the heck is going on, but just as I think I’m not going to be able to take not knowing anymore, we turn a corner to a long straight, and I see Charlie Tango resting silently at the end of a huge parking area, surrounded by only a few cars that look to belong to unnamed business. My eyes widen as I get a better look around and see that there are white gossamer bows tied around the trees surrounding us, and a carpet of white rose petals covering the path the leads into the trees.

“What in the world?” I whisper, as we finally come to a stop. “No. No, he didn’t…”

Kate turns around and grins at me.

“I didn’t know until this morning,” she says. “That’s why I wasn’t there when you woke up. Christian called the whole family together and told them that the wedding in Lakewood was just a ploy to draw the attention of the media and anyone else who may want to ruin your big day. He wanted to actually give you the intimate wedding you wanted. Your dress is here, your real dress, and you and Christian are getting married by the sea. Just you two and the family.”

“I didn’t know either,” Luke adds quickly, and he sounds almost miffed. “Grey and Taylor didn’t tell anyone. Not until this morning. He didn’t want to take any chance of his real plans being leaked. This actually may have been one of the most closely guarded secrets in the history of weddings.”

My hand flies up to cover my shock and the uncontrollable smile it brings. For an entirely different reason than this morning, I feel like I can’t move. That is, until Taylor appears and comes around the car to open my door for me.

“Miss Steele,” he greets me, with a smile. I take his outstretched hand, allowing him to help me out of the car, and then he does something he’s never done before. Taylor pulls me against him and gives me a long, affectionate hug. “You look beautiful, Ana. He’s going to lose it when he sees you.”

“Thank you, Taylor,” I reply, turning my head to kiss him on the cheek. He smiles and then bends down to look in the car.

“If it’s okay with you, Mr. Grey asked me to bring Calliope to him.”

“He called me at least six times last night to check in on her,” Luke adds. “That man sure loves that baby.”

I smile, tears swimming in my eyes and nod. Taylor reaches into the backseat and takes Calliope’s car seat while I turn and grasp tightly to Kate’s hand, following her and Luke down the ¼ mile long, rose strewn path that leads us to the water.

The moment I see the view, I’m flabbergasted. It is without a doubt one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. Christian has flown me over this place before, but the view from this vantage point is something else entirely. Giant monoliths jet out of the water, causing the sea to spray around them as the tide rolls into the cape. The sea sparkles under the summer sun, and besides the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and seagulls flying out into the horizon, it’s silent. It’s completely and absolutely stunning, and when a photographer approaches me outside the tent where I’m meant to change, I gladly pull Kate into my side and take several photos.

Getting ready on the edge of the cape is a different experience entirely. Christian has thought of every detail, and the tent I wait in for the ceremony to start is both lavish and romantic, with candles and rose petals. He’s even left a handwritten note for me inside that tells me he can’t wait to finally see me.

As the rest of the family arrives, overjoyed that I’m now in on the secret with them, I begin to feel the excitement you’re supposed to feel before your wedding. Grace and Kate help me slip on my perfect wedding dress, and once it’s fastened into place, I can’t stop smiling at my reflection. Kate undoes the over complicated updo that my stylist put together this morning, and allows my hair to fall loose around my shoulder in soft round curls. The bouquet that I’m intended to carry down the aisle is comprised of pink peonies, which, although they’re my favorite, I had forgone for the other wedding because they didn’t fit with the color scheme. Everything is perfect, and when Carrick, who I’m told is going to marry us thanks to an online certification, pokes his head and says they’re ready, I feel butterflies.

The good kind.

My father takes my hand and places it on the inside of his elbow while Luke and Ros make their way down the aisle first, then we wait several more seconds for Kate and Elliot follow after them. When we’re alone, he takes a deep breath and turns to look at me.

“You’ll forgive me if I can’t say the words when Carrick asks me to give you away?” he checks. I smile and lean up to kiss him softly on the corner of his mouth.

“You’re not giving anything away, Daddy. I’ll always be your little girl.”

He nods and then takes a deep breath before leaning down to kiss me on the forehead. “I love you, Annie. Always have. Always will.” His hand tightens around my arms, and slowly, we make our way out of the tent.

It’s a long aisle made up of a planked wooden walkway over the flora of the forest floor. I find myself glad that I have my father to cling to and that his grip is steady and sure, because I wobble several times as we wind our way closer to the edge of the cliffs that overlook the tumultuous sea below. It helps when I focus on the music playing from just the other side of the treeline, but as I listen to the angelic voice singing in French along with the soft notes of a piano, I realize I recognize it. It’s the singer we heard during the service at Notre Dame in Paris, the one I was so enraptured with, and as we make the last turn which finally brings me to the end of the aisle that will lead me to Christian, I feel tears well in my eyes.

He’s standing there in a pristine charcoal suit, Elliot and Ros at his side, looking more handsome than I have ever seen him. The moment he lays eyes on me, his face breaks into a breathtaking smile, but as I begin walking towards him he covers his lips and looks at the ground. It’s only for a brief second, but when he looks up at me again, he too has tears in his eyes.

There’s no one else in this moment, only the two of us, and as I walk to the much too slow beat of the music playing around us, my father’s arm no longer feels supportive. It feels as though it’s holding me back, keeping me from sprinting to Christian and being enveloped in his arms, where I know I belong.

At the end of the aisle, we stop several paces before we reach Christian and while we wait for the music to end, he never takes his eyes off me.

“Who gives this woman to be wed to this man?” Carrick asks.

“I do,” my father replies, and then he lifts my hand, kisses it, and then places it gently in Christian’s. I smile back at him as he takes a seat next to Grace, and then turn to face the man I love. Unexpectedly, he leans forward and kisses me.

“You have to wait for that part, Christian,” Elliot says, nudging him from behind, but Christian simply smiles and shakes his head.

“I’m not sorry.”

My face breaks into a huge smile, and then we both turn to face his father.

Carrick’s words are not traditional. They speak to the love he has witnessed grow between us throughout the years and the people he has watched us become as a result having one another. I can hear Kate crying next to me, and Grace from her place just behind us, but I try not to focus on it so I don’t break down myself. Instead, I take a breath and prepare to say my vows.

“My life seems to have always been consumed by stories and I’ve always been drawn to fairy tales and the great romances. I didn’t know it when I was young, or even really when I left for Harvard and stepped into the world alone for the first time, but from the moment I read my very first love story, I started looking for you. You are my Mr. Darcy, my Rhett Butler, my Prince Charming, and yet, you’re still so much more. You’ve told me again and again that you want to make all of my dreams come true, and today, you’ve done just that. Because you are my dream, Christian Grey. You are the answer to every one of my prayers, and my hopes and my desires. I love you in a way that I didn’t know was possible before I knew you, because before you, I didn’t know what love was. From this day forward, I vow to give you all of my heart. I promise that I walk with you hand and hand, never straying from your side, wherever our journey leads us. I will never give your reason to doubt my commitment to you, to our family, and to the love you have placed in me. Because I love you, Christian, and I always will.”

He smiles as Carrick turns.

“Christian?”

“Anastasia, I don’t know if I can put into words what you have done for me. You were the very first person in my life who saw the best in me when they didn’t have to and with motive. You were the first person who made me feel like I was worth more than a good family name or the sum of what I’d survived. When you opened your heart to me, you showed me what it meant to truly love. When you stood by my side through everything we’ve been through, you showed me what it meant to be strong. And when you made me a father, you showed me what it meant to be man. I’ll never be able to repay the things that you have given me, but I promise that I will never stop trying. You are simply the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. For everything I have, your love is what I cherish and hold to be most valuable. Everything that I am and that I hope to be is because of you. Before I knew you, I had goals and aspirations for what I wanted in my life but you, you taught me how to dream. And now, every dream that I possess begins and ends with you. You give me purpose, Ana, and I vow to you today that I will love you, cherish you, remain faithful to you, and care for you, every day, until my last day.”

I fight the tears welling in my eyes as best I can, but it’s no use. They roll over my cheeks and as I reach up to wipe them away, Carrick speaks again.

“Do we have the rings?”

“Yes,” Kate sniffs, and she pulls the simple platinum band I chose for Christian from her thumb and hands it to me. Christian turns as well and takes my wedding band from Elliot.

“Do you, Anastasia Rose Steele, take Christian to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”

“Yes,” I breathe. “I mean, I do.”

There’s a low murmur of laughter behind me as Carrick turns to Christian.

“And do you, Christian Trevelyan-Grey, take Anastasia to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.” His voice rings clear and certain through the space between, and my smile widens so much my cheeks start to hurt.

“Then please take each other’s hands, place your ring upon the other’s finger, and make your commitment to one another.”

I take Christian’s hand and do as I’m instructed. “With this ring,” I tell him, holding his gaze. “I thee wed.”

“With this ring,” he repeats. “I thee wed.”

“Then, by the power invested in me,” Carrick says. “I now pronounce you, husband and wife. Christian, you may now kiss your bride.”

He lunges at me, taking my face in either of his hands as his lips come crashing down on mine. He holds me there for a long time and I can feel the happiness and the love radiating from his kiss. I never want it to end, but it has to, and when we finally pull apart, I can’t stop smiling.

Just like that, he’s my husband.

Each member of our family comes to hug both Christian and I in turn and then we pose for several pictures against the ocean backdrop before my husband takes me by hand and leads me back up the long path where the limo I think must have brought Grace, Mia, Carrick, Elliot, and my father, waits for us.

Elliot pops a bottle of champagne in the back seat of the limo, which we drink all the way back to Neah Bay, where I’m surprised once again to find the yacht docked in the harbor. There’s laughter all around us as we climb the boarding dock and make our way up to the main deck, and while we set sail into the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards Seattle, I’m floored by the beautiful reception that waits for us there.

There’s no head table or separate seating for our guests, we’re simply seated around the long dining table, together as a family. The caterers file into the dining room and lay an amazing meal of filet mignon, wild mushrooms, and rice in front of us, and as we eat, Kate and Elliot stand to give their toasts.

Kate, of course, makes me cry as she talks about soul mates and how unbelievably happy she is to have watched us grow together in love throughout the years. Elliot mostly makes jokes at Christian’s expense, but then floors everyone when he takes a moment to seriously express his feelings for the both of us and how the love we have shared has not only touched every single person seated around the table, but how it’s changed each of their lives.

After Christian hugs his brother, and both Grace and I have gotten the resulting tears under control, we turn our attention to Carrick. One by one, everyone gives a toast, some tearful, others that make us laugh. There’s so much love shared around this table and as each person gets up to speak, it becomes something palpable. Now that Kate and Elliot are back together, this family really does feel complete, and as we finish our dinner, I feel the joy in that sentiment radiating through me.

“Shall we have our first dance?” Christian asks. I smile and get up from the table with him. The singer from our wedding comes out to stand next to band set up outside, and after a quick nod from Christian, the music begins to play and she belts out the powerful notes of Etta James’s At Last.

“This night is perfect,” I say, resting my head against Christian’s chest as we sway together under the twinkle lights on the outdoor deck.

“A perfect night with my wife,” he replies, emphasising the word wife with a distinct note of both pride and pleasure. I lean up on my toes to kiss him and then allow him to sweep me around through the cool sea air.

The festivities continue all the way back to Seattle. I share an emotional dance with my father to Heartland’s I Loved Her First, and then Christian pulls his mother onto the dance floor. She’s already in tears as he puts his arms around her, but then the beginning notes to Uptown Girl by Billy Joel start and her face breaks into a huge smile. He smiles back at her, and then backs away, starting a ridiculous dance that I feel must be choreographed, despite how sloppy and silly it is, because Grace starts right after him. I giggle into my hand, especially when Grace grabs Elliot and Mia and pulls them up with them and they all jump and dance around, everyone but Mia looking extraordinarily ungraceful. We dance all night, Christian even sways for an entire song with Calliope in his arms, and as we finally pull through the sound, I feel as though I might actually be floating on cloud nine.

There are a fleet of cars waiting for us at the Marina when we finally get back home, and Christian and I hug and kiss everyone goodbye, thanking them for sharing this amazing day with us, before we head to our own car to make our way back to Escala so we can continue celebrating alone. As we approach the black SUV at the front of the line though, Ryan and Kommer step out and suddenly, Christian looks very serious.

“Well?”

“Nothing, sir,” Kommer says. “There were no gifts left, no threats made, no staff or guests out of place. Miss Steele’s intended dressing room remained locked, and the security footage showed no attempts to get inside. As best we can tell, everything went exactly as according to plan.”

“Nothing?” Christian repeats in angry disbelief. “Jesus, what the fuck is he waiting for?”

“I don’t know, sir, but we have one positive development.”

“We do?”

Ryan nods. “Yes, sir. But it’s best we keep it underwraps. If you’ll just step into the car.”

Christian narrows his eyes suspiciously but takes my hand and pulls me into the back of the SUV after him. When I get a look at the person already inside waiting for us though, my confusion only deepens.

“Carter?”

“Hey, Ana. Christian,” he says nervously. “Uh… Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Reed,” Christian says. “But, I’m sorry… what are you doing here?”

“I think I can help you find who’s been after Ana, or you, or whatever is going on. I think I can help you figure out who it is.”

Christian’s face goes blank. “You can?”

“Yeah. I uh… I got a phone call. Whoever he is, he wants my help.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 40

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It’s an abnormally hot summer day, even for mid-July. The bridal boutique where I’m trying on my dress now that the final alterations have been made is sweltering. Luke looks incredibly uncomfortable sitting in the chair against the wall a few feet away from me, and while Grace paces back and forth near the door, talking to the hospital so she can follow up on one of her patients, she actually has to reach up and wipe the sweat away from her brow with the back of her hand.

“How are we doing, Miss Steele?” the manager asks, coming in from the back room for what feels like the 400th time today.

“We’re fine,” I tell her. “Still waiting.”

She nods and gives me a very forced looking smile. I’ve been here, in this dress, for probably 40 minutes and while I’m sure she would have normally insisted we move along with our appointment so she could get me out of here as quickly as possible, she holds her tongue because I will be leaving this shop today with over six figures worth of wedding dresses.

Not one, two.

I twist in the mirror to admire the back of the dress again when, finally, Kate comes bustling through the archway leading in from the main store.

“I’m so sorry, Ana, traffic was terrible and there’s paparazzi outsi–” she halts in mid-sentence and the apologetic look on her face suddenly changes to confusion. “But… that’s the same dress.”

“I know,” I sigh. “No one else has seen the new one yet, and I didn’t want to do the big reveal until you got here. I just wanted to look at the first dress one last time.”

“It’s beautiful,” Kate says. “And you look amazing in it. I don’t understand why you’re changing it.”

“It doesn’t fit the venue, and the other one is the one the paper announced I would be wearing, so…” My hands brush down over the soft ivory lace that perfectly hugs the body I’ve worked so hard to get back all the way down past my hips and then sweeps out in a graceful pool around my feet. The first time I tried this dress on, I immediately fell in love with the detail in the lace and the raw, unfinished edges of the thin lace straps that circle my shoulders. It’s beautiful, elegant, and yet still a little sexy. My breasts look fantastic cupped inside the custom created bodice and the dress itself is completely backless, all the way down to the top of my behind, which is artfully contained within the dress to look high, firm, and utterly perfect. I’ve imagined myself in this gown, walking down the aisle towards Christian, a hundred times, and even in just the fantasy of it, I could see the cocktail of wonder, love, and a hint of lust in his eyes.

It’s my perfect dress, but it’s not the dress I’ll be wearing on my wedding day.

I sigh and turn away from the mirror. Since the dress I”m wearing is custom made, I can’t return it, and while I step off the pedestal so I can make my way to the back to try on the new dress, I have a passing thought that maybe one day Calliope will wear this on her wedding day and it won’t feel like such a waste.

It takes three people to help me get into the gown I’m actually going to wear on Saturday. We begin with not one, but two layers of petticoats to ensure the skirt of the gown will reach it’s full potential and then I’m strapped tightly into a kind of corset that will both keep my waist looking tiny and perfect, and act as a support for my breasts since this gown is strapless but the the bodice isn’t boned.

After ensuring I can breathe, two salesgirls lift the dress as high as they can, while the manager holds open the skirt so I can slide inside, and as they carefully ease the dress over me, I prepare myself for the weight. The gown is gorgeous. I kept the lace theme, as I really did love that from the first dress, but this lace isn’t ivory, it’s white, almost blinding white, which seems a bit presumptuous since my daughter is being carried down the aisle by my soon to be Mother-in-Law right in front of me. The bodice is intricate with a deep v sweetheart neckline, and straps similar to the first dress that drape beautifully, but uselessly, over my arms at the side. At my waist, the skirt begins to billow out in a cloud of gossamer and lace, which is woven into a floral pattern throughout the skirt to reflect the gardens where we’re saying our vows, and then continues on several feet behind me. As the sales staff lay the gargantuan train out behind me, which I’m sure will look amazing tumbling down the long staircases of Thornewood Castle, I’m once again floored by how stunning this gown really is. It’s the kind of dress you would imagine royalty would wear, but it’s also extremely heavy. Almost uncomfortably so. It feels almost as though it’s consuming me, and every time I imagine Christian trying to fight his way through all of this material to get under my dress on our wedding night, I burst into a fit of giggles.

“Alright,” the manager says brightly as she steps away from me. “What do you think, dear?”

“It really is beautiful,” I say, glancing up and down in my own private mirror.”

“Your groom is going to be absolutely floored.” She smiles and attempts to further fluff the already overfull skirt. “Oh, you look like Cinderella. Shall we show the others?”

I nod and then take her hand to help me down off the pedestal, gathering the front of the skirt in my hand so I can walk, and as I wonder how that’s going to work practically when I walk down the aisle, one hand wrapped through my father’s elbow and another clutching to the huge white bouquet Seattle’s top tier florist has personally crafted for me, I feel the weight of the dress pulling me back. It’s like an anchor, determined to keep me in place, but I trudge forward, forcing myself out of the dressing room to where my family is waiting.

“Ana,” Luke says, straightening in his chair the moment I come through the arch and gawking at me. “Oh my god, you look…” He’s at a loss for words, and when Grace turns away from the display of hairpieces she’s carefully examining to look at me, her hand immediately shoots up to her mouth and her eyes well with tears.

“Oh, Ana… that’s it. That’s the dress. My darling girl, you look absolutely beautiful.”

“Really?”

“Yes, oh, Christian is going to lose his mind when he sees you.”

I let out a sharp exhale of relief and then step on the riser so I can examine the dress once more, but as the salesgirl places the veil over my hair and I turn to look at Kate, I notice that she’s not surveying the dress with quite the same enthusiasm as Luke or Grace.

“Kate?”

She glances up at me and gives me a subtly forced smile. “It’s a beautiful dress, Ana. You look like a princess.” Her words aren’t insincere, but they aren’t overly joyous or excited either, so I frown.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She shakes her head, but I continue to stare her down until, eventually, she sighs. “It just doesn’t really look like you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s stunning, Ana. You are going to look phenomenal on your wedding day and Christian…” She hesitates again, pursing her lips together as though she’s trying to keep herself from saying something she’ll regret.

“And Christian?” I press her.

“You look gorgeous, Ana.”

And Christian?”

She sighs again. “The other dress is so much more modern and…” she bites her lip, clearly struggling for words. “When I first saw it, I imagined his jaw hitting the floor when he saw you appear at the end of the aisle. This dress is… pretty, but you are kind of lost in it.”

I stare at her for a long time and then, out of nowhere, suddenly burst into tears. The weight of the dress seems to pull on me and, as I dissolve into the torrent of emotion that’s been building inside of me since the moment Christian told me he’d changed our wedding plans, I crumple to the floor.

“Oh my god, Ana,” Kate says, rushing to my side. “I’m so sorry. It’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful, and you’re gorgeous. Christian is going to love it. Everyone is.”

“That’s true, Ana. You are going to be the most beautiful bride anyone has ever seen,” Grace adds and she falls to her knees next to me and pulls me into her arms.

“She’s right, though,” I sob. “This dress isn’t me. It isn’t Christian… at least I didn’t think it was. None of this feels right but he’s so insistent on making everything bigger and louder… do I not know him as well as I think I do?”

“Annie, he’s just excited,” Kate says, rubbing her hand over my back comfortingly. “He loves you and he wants to shout it from the rooftops. That’s all this is. And your wedding is going to be so beautiful. Hell, the entire city is treating it like a bigger deal than Will and Kate’s wedding. You’re like, Seattle’s very own princess. Your dress is fantastic.”

Her words don’t comfort me, in fact, they only make me sob harder, and Grace tightens her hold around me.

“It’s going to ruin everything. It’s too heavy. Christian and I have been taking ballroom lessons because I can’t dance to save my life and we’re going to be in front of hundreds of people… how am I supposed to do anything in this dress if I can’t move?”

“So we’ll get you a different dress for the reception. That’s not uncommon.”

“She has another dress…” Luke points out.

“No, like a dancing dress. Something that will look really great when you move.”

“I don’t have time to find and fit another dress, I’m getting married in two days, Kate.” Suddenly, my breath feels as though it freezes in my chest and I feel a wave of cold wash over me. “Two days. I’m getting married in two days…”

“Ana,” Grace says soothingly as my body begins to shake. “It’s okay, sweetie. Shhhh. You’re just feeling overwhelmed. This is just pre-wedding nerves, every girl gets them. You’re going to be okay.”

I shake my head. “I need out of this dress. Right now. Please, take it off.”

My hands reach desperately for the ties at the back of my dress and as Kate hurries to unfasten the bodice, the tears come more forcefully. When I’m finally free from the confines of the gown, her arms wrap around me again and she helps pull me to my feet.

“It’s okay, Ana. It’s going to be okay.”

“I’ll take care of the dress,” Grace says, looking worried. “Go get her back in her regular clothes and we’ll head home. We’ve got to be to the airport soon anyway.”

Kate nods and drags me into the changing rooms once again, and as I start to change out of the corset and petticoats and back into my jeans and loose fitting tank top, the tears stop and my body starts to relax.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, wiping the moisture away from my eyes.

“What’s going on, Ana?”

“I just feel like I’m drowning. This wedding has taken on a life of it’s own. My book was released to the critics this week and Lydia has been calling me non-stop to talk about the feedback, but I haven’t had a chance to read any of it. I’m leaving on a book tour in five days and I don’t even know where I’m going because I haven’t had any time to look at the itinerary. Everything is moving so fast… I just need a second to breathe.”

“Why don’t you have a wedding planner helping you with all of this?”

“There wasn’t time for Taylor to vet another person. He’s already got his hands full with security for the actual wedding with the staff we’ve hired and the dozens of vendors that will be going in and out… not to mention this witch hunt he’s going on throughout GEH and Grey Construction.”

“What do you mean?”

“He traced payments from that offshore account to about a hundred different people but we have no idea if they’re all involved in this plot or if the person who’s behind this uses that account to pay anyone he contracts or does business with under the table. He started with Grey Construction, because Elliot’s CCTV footage proved that Gia didn’t leave that resignation note, and he found payments to people who are working on our new house. Taylor did a sweep of the whole property and found several issues with the security system they installed, spyware mostly, to collect the codes and so someone could have remote access to the cameras. They’ve been turned over to the… uh, they’ve been arrested,  but they’ve all given names we already know. Leila. Elena. Hyun. Clearly, they’ve rehearsed this.”

“Jesus…”

“There were like fifteen low level employees at GEH too, and some students at Harvard who I had classes with but never really talked to, but then there’s payments to dry cleaners, dog walkers, delivery services, repairmen, and a satellite company. Christian thinks that’s how he’s been keeping tabs on us, paying ordinary people to watch us and track our movements, but Taylor doesn’t think tracking each and every person on this list of people down and interrogating them is worth our resources. Especially if they’re being coached on what to say if they’re caught. We need some kind of real proof.”

“What about the people at GEH?”

“They’re being monitored, quietly. All of their communication coming in and going out is seen and read by Taylor or someone on his team first. I’m not really sure what they’re doing with it, or if any progress has been made because he and Christian are both being very tight lipped about their plans to handle this, but I think they’re trying to be less aggressive and more subtle in their approach since every time we think we’re getting close to someone who has real ties to him, they disappear, and it’s hard to get information out of someone who’s dead. It feels like we’re paddling upstream, you know. Fighting like crazy but not really getting anywhere.” I sigh. “The most important thing right now is to find out who he is, so Taylor is going to use the people we know he’s been in contact with and focus on doing that.”

“Well, as long as you’re safe, that’s all I care about. What are they doing to your house?”

“Complete overhaul. Everything has to be replaced. So, we’re not moving in as soon as we thought.”

“That’s sucks. I’m sorry…”

I nod, then tense as my phone rings in my purse, and when I reach inside and recognize the number as the bakery who we’ve hired to construct our massive, seven-tier wedding cake, my stress levels are instantly peaked again.

“Anastasia Steele,” I answer.

“Good Afternoon, Miss Steele. I’m calling from Sugar Cake Studio, and we’ve… had a miscommunication.”

“Miscommunication?”

“Yes, we’ve just finished the construction of your cake and the order form includes seven layers of madagascar vanilla cake, white chocolate raspberry filling, and buttercream frosting underneath white fondant, but the sugar english roses… our designer did them in gold.”

“Gold? No. Nothing in our wedding is gold. Just white and silver. They’re supposed to be silver.”

“I understand, Miss Steele, and you have my sincerest apologies, but with the number of roses it takes to finish your cake, there simply isn’t enough time to start over. They have to be hand crafted and set, painted…”

“I-I…” Instead of rushing through ideas of how to fix this, my mind goes completely blank and I feel as though I might be about to hyperventilate when Kate reaches out and takes the phone from me.

“What can we do to fix this?” she asks, and then pauses. “Do it then, whatever you can. Just make sure there is a cake there at one o’clock on Saturday. Great.” She hangs up and hands the phone back to me, and while I glance questioningly between her and my phone, she sighs.

“It’s cake, Ana. We’re two days away from the wedding, if something is goes wrong, it’s going to go wrong, and there’s no point in stressing about it. Just remember that by Saturday night, you’re going to be Mrs. Christian Grey. In the end, that’s all that matters, right?”

“Right. Thank you, Kate.” I take a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and as my body relaxes and catches up to my mind, she wraps an arm around me and squeezes me tightly into her side.

“You really need to unwind, babe. Luckily for you, I’ve got you covered.” She flashes a dazzling smile at me. “Let’s go.”

 

There’s a hoard of photographers outside, waiting for the first picture of the dress, so Grace takes the two, oversized, beige garment bags in her hands and uses them to shield herself while she and two salesgirls fight their way to the SUV parked on the curb. The diversion works fairly well for the most part, I’m at least able to get out of the store without being immediately surrounded. Once the photographers realize that I’m not the one climbing into the SUV though, they quickly turn around and Luke has to wrap himself around me and practically drag me to Kate’s car a few spaces back to get me there safely.

Inside her brand new, cherry red BMW, the crowd swarms us and I make a very purposeful gesture to shield my eyes with my left hand so they get plenty of pictures of my engagement ring. Last week, I dropped it off to get it cleaned and have the stone checked before I went to a dress fitting with Kate and Ros. When we left the dress shop, some photographer got a photo of me without my ring and the next day, three different local tabloids ran stories about how the wedding was off, and Christian went off the rails. Jacqueline, his PR manager, spent the entire day on the phone trying to force them to run a redaction, but to no avail. So, hopefully, when these photos get splashed all over some awful rag, at least some of those rumors will get cleared up.

“Head straight for Escala,” Luke tells Kate, sticking his head all the way in the car to prevent the photographers from hearing him. “We’ll be right behind you. No stops.”

“You got it, boss.” She whips out a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses to protect her vision from the flashing lights of the cameras and then slowly pulls away from the curb in the wake of people that Luke is able to make. Once she’s clear, she hits the gas and we speed off as best we can through downtown until we pull into the garage under Escala.

I notice, as we get out of the car and she pulls a suitcase far too large for one night out of her trunk, that my dad, Elliot, and Carrick are already here, which means that once Luke pulls into his own place with Grace, everyone is accounted for and we should be able to leave as soon as we get upstairs.

“Oh, I’m starting to get butterflies,” Grace says as the elevator hums to life and begins climbing the 31 floors to the penthouse. “I’m just so excited this day is finally here.” She wraps her arms around me from behind and kisses me on top of my head.

“Me too,” I tell her, although my butterflies feel more like bats.

When the doors open, we find Andrea pacing around the foyer on her cellphone, coordinating tuxedo delivery for tomorrow, but when she sees us step out of the elevator with the dress bags, she immediately dismisses whoever she’s on the phone with and tells them she’ll call them back.

“Wait, wait, wait! Is that the dress?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“Okay…” She picks up a clipboard off the table in the center of the room and scans through the page attached. “It needs to go into the second guest room, and the spare needs to go in the first, so they don’t get confused. De Beers delivered your jewelry this afternoon, so it’s already up there, did you stop by Manolo Blahnik and get your shoes?”

“Oh, fuck,” I groan. “No, I completely forgot. Shit, what time is it?” I look down at my phone for the time, trying to figure out how I’m going to get downtown and back before we’re supposed to leave, but Andrea quickly reaches out and places a soothing hand on my forearm.

“Don’t worry about it, Ana. I’ll take care of it. Now that you’re home, your wedding weekend has officially commenced. You don’t worry about anything else, I’ll take it from here.”

“Thank you, Andrea,” I sigh with relief.

“Don’t mention it, Miss Steele. Or should I say, Mrs. Grey?” She winks and then moves past me to help Luke carry the heavy dress bags upstairs, while I move into the apartment to find my groom. At first, the only people I see are Carrick, Elliot, and my Dad, who are gathered by the window in eager conversation, but eventually my eyes fall on Christian, who is in the living room, hovering over Calliope in a plank position, doing push ups and kissing each of her cheeks as he falls down over the top of her.

“Must be nice to have so much energy to burn,” I say teasingly as I saunter towards them, and when he looks up, he beams.

“I’m getting married in two days, gotta look my best.”

Instantly, the image of the scale from this morning, displaying the last three pounds I just can’t seem to shed, comes to mind and I frown, which makes his smile falter for a second before he gets off the ground and comes at me with his hands reached out for my face. Once my cheeks are cupped in his palms, he kisses me fiercely.

“You are the most beautiful woman in the world,” he assures me. “Make no mistake, I’m the one really making out here. I know what a lucky son of a bitch I am to be giving you my name on Saturday.”

I bite down on my lower lip to pull back the ridiculous smile that wants to come out at his sweet words and then lean forward and peck him gently on the lips again. He hums and tries to deepen the kiss once more, but I quickly pull away.

“Behave,” I chastise him, and then move around him to Calliope still laid out over the blanket behind him. “Hi, sweetheart.”

I groan as I reach beneath the blankets and scoop her into my arms. Her eyes widen when I pull  her close to me, and when she reaches her tiny little hand from the bundle of blankets to grip my face with her little fingers, I feel myself melt.

“I missed you all day,” I coo at her, and then lean down and blow raspberries against her neck before kissing her all over her face. When I pull away, her face is lights up. “Awh… Are you sure we can’t take her with us?”

“The Vegas strip is no place for an infant,” Christian says.

“It’s been pretty good to us,” I argue, but he narrows his eyes in response.

“The things that have happened between you and I in Las Vegas are never going to happen to her. Over my dead body.”

“Well, Christian,” Kate interrupts. “If you don’t learn to relax a little bit, that’s gonna be in about five years. So, wha’d’you say we get out of here and let loose a little, huh?”

“Whenever you’re ready, Kate,” he placates her. She smiles and turns back to the room.

“Alright, everyone. Let’s roll out.”

“Vegas!” Elliot yells. Christian’s mom lets out an awkward whoop and punches her fist into the air, and as everyone else in the room devolves into laughter, I look back down at the baby in my arms and frown.

“She’s not going to think we’re abandoning her, right?”

“She’s just a baby, sweetheart, and you’re only going to be gone one night,” my dad says. “She and I are going to be just fine.”

I nod but hesitate before I pass her off to him. “Ava will be here, and so will Mrs. Jones, if you need any help. And Ryan is here for security. And you can call me if anything happens. Anything. Christian and I will get on a plane and…”

“Your lack of confidence in my parenting skills is astounding sometimes,” he says dryly, and while I try to brush his sarcasm off with a laugh, it comes out as more of a nervous whimper and I hug Calliope close to my chest again.

“Be good for Grandpa,” I whisper as I hug her. “Mommy will miss you. So, so much.”

“Ana…” Christian presses me, and slowly I shift her from my arms to my father’s. Christian steps forward and kisses Calliope softly on the head, and then reaches forward to grip my father’s arm.

“You’re sure you won’t join us?” he asks. “We have plenty of people to hold the fort down here and look after Calli, you’re more than welcome to come along.”

“Surprising, I don’t think my future son-in-law’s bachelor party is really the place for me.”

“It might help to have you along,” I joke. “God only knows what Elliot has planned.”

“Oh, you know what I have planned,” Elliot laughs from the archway that leads to the foyer. “If you think long and hard enough about it, I bet you can imagine everything I have planned.”

I grimace, and my father raises an eyebrow at me. “See? You kids have fun. Calli and I will be here when you get home.”

“I love you, Daddy.” I kiss him on the cheek and give Calliope one last guilty look before Christian hooks his hand through my elbow and pulls me gently towards the elevators where everyone else is waiting.

 

The long, stretch limo downstairs that is waiting to take us to the airport is once again surrounded by reporters, so our family makes a kind of human shield around Christian and I while Luke and Taylor hold up jackets to block our faces from the flashes. Once we’re inside though, we relax behind the darkly tinted windows, which adequately black out the photographers we know are still trying to get a photo, and join in the increasingly celebratory mood with the rest of our family. Even Christian doesn’t seem annoyed by the loud music or Kate’s obnoxious selfie taking. In fact, he and Elliot look more like best friends than I’ve ever seen them before as they joke around with each other the entire way to the airport.

When we pull onto the tarmac at SeaTac, the doors to the plane are already open, and we find that it’s because  Ros, Gwen, Mia, one of the two security guards Christian hired for his family, and a young girl I don’t know, are already aboard.

“Christian!” Ros cries as he comes around the front bulkhead and moves down the center of the plane. She leaps out of her seat and wraps her arms around the back of his head. “I can’t believe this day is finally here. I’m so happy for you! And Ana!” She moves to hug me in the same overzealous fashion. “I don’t know why, but it feels like we’re about to be family and I’m so excited about it.” She pauses, and then laughs. “We’re going to be like sister wives.”

“No, you’re not,” Christian says flatly. He looks irritated as he pushes me past her and into the pair of seats across the aisle, but before he sits down, he reaches over to knock the back of his hand against his sister’s knee. She’s huddled together in a pair of seats a row back and across from us, giggling with the girl I don’t know, so when she turns to look at Christian, she seems almost annoyed.

“What?”

“What?” Christian repeats. “How about, hi?”

“Hi.” She tries to turn back around to her friend, but Christian doesn’t let her.

“Where have you been? I’ve called you probably ten times and you’ve never answered or called me back. What are you, avoiding me?”

“No.” She’s defensive now. “I’m just busy. Summer recital is coming up and I’m a lead this year. I’ve been at rehearsal every day.”

“Well, Ana’s leaving next week on her book tour so I’ve got some free time. I’d like to take you to lunch or dinner, maybe have you come stay at Escala one night.”

“Can’t. I have several lifts in this show, so I’m eating very clean and low calorie. That doesn’t bode well for eating out.”

He narrows his eyes. “We live in Seattle, there’s plenty of restaurants that cater to clean eating. Or, Gail can cook for us.”

“That’s okay. Thanks, though.”

“Mia.” He sounds almost wounded. “You’re my sister, and I miss you. I want to spend some time with you. Besides, I thought you wanted to talk to me?”

She quickly shakes her head. “No. Nothing. I just… I just wanted to tell you to be careful. You know, with everything going on.” Her eyes shift up for a half second to the rest of our family filling in the seats at the front of the plane and then back to her friend. Her friend though doesn’t seem to be paying attention to her anymore. Instead, her gaze is fixed on her brother.

“Hi, Christian,” she says, waving her fingers at him in a very shy manner.

“Hello, Tabitha,” Christian replies. The girl starts to giggle and turns back to whisper to Mia and after a few seconds, Mia pulls away, rolls her eyes, and shakes her head.

“You’re so stupid, Tibby. He’s getting married.”

Christian lets out a sigh as he slumps down into the seat next to me, and I give him a teasing smile.

“So, you and Tibby, huh?”

His eyes narrow. “No.”

“She’s a little young for you,” I continue, ignoring his dismissive tone. “But she’s cute in an underage child kind of way…”

“Ana…”

“Do I have to go beat her up?”

Finally, he cracks a smile. “Stop.”

I giggle and pull up the armrest between us so I can cuddle against him until we take off and I have to put a seatbelt on. Natalia comes up the aisles while the pilot does the final pre-flight checks and passes out glasses of champagne, which both Mia and Tabitha very unsubtly sneak off her tray, but before we take our first sip, Carrick stands at the front of the plane and gives a toast.

“To my son, Christian, and his beautiful bride, Anastasia. We all love you, so much, and we’re so proud to be here to support you on this joyous day. I wish you both nothing but happiness and a lifetime worth of love. To Christian and Ana.”

“Christian and Ana!”

Christian leans over and places a gentle kiss against my lips before we raise our glasses and toast with the rest of our family, but as the plane begins taxing over the airfield, Kate and Elliot start digging through their bags to pass out the very first of their party favors. My guests receive bright pink lei’s that have tiny plastic penises between each flower, while Elliot’s all get a bottle of craft beer.

My first impression, Elliot- 1 Kate- 0.

“You’re not putting a penis on me,” I say firmly as Kate approaches Christian and I.

“Funny…” she muses. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

Christian glares at her as she laughs but instead of pulling out a Lei, she slips a glittery, pink pageant sash over my head that has the words “Future Mrs. Grey” screen printed across the front. Once I slide it in place, she puts a tiara in my hair and then leans over to kiss me on the forehead.

“Get ready for the ride of your life, Anastasia.” With a wink, she turns back for the front of the plane, and Christian raises an eyebrow at me.

“The ride of your life, huh? Clearly she doesn’t get what goes on behind closed doors.” I giggle under his hungry gaze and then take a sip of champagne, letting the upbeat mood of everyone around us and the warmth of Christian’s arm holding me tightly against him wash away all of my anxiety and uncertainty over the impending circus of a wedding taking place on Saturday as we gently rise into the sky.

 

It’s fairly late in the afternoon when we finally touch down in Vegas, and waiting for us on the tarmac are two separate stretch limousines. The driver with the sign that says “Grey” stands before a classic sleek, black limo, much like the one we took from Escala to the airport, while the driver holding the “Steele” sign, opens the door to a stretch, pink Escalade.

“Oh my god, Kate!” Mia shrieks excitedly. She hooks her arms through Tibby’s and streaks for the Escalade, and after Grace and Gwen have hugged and kissed their partners good-bye, they follow after the girls with Luke, Kommer, and Harrison.

“Where are you staying?” Kate checks with Elliot.

“The Venetian. You?”

“Aria. And you get 1Oak, we get Hyde.”

“That was the deal,” Elliot agrees. Kate nods and turns away from him, but he reaches out, grabs her arm, and pulls her back to him. “Hey… have fun tonight, okay?”

“Oh… yeah, you too.”

His tongue brushes swiftly over his bottom lip, but after a heated moment of pause between them, he eventually takes a deep breath, releases her arm, and nods. “Make sure my sister-in-law gets home safe, okay?”

“I will.” Kate leans up on her toes and kisses him on the cheek before she turns for the Escalade, and Elliot watches her forlornly as she disappears inside, before finally nodding to Christian and following Carrick, Taylor, Ros, and his own CPO into the other car.

Christian sighs. “Don’t drink too much, okay?”

“I won’t,” I promise, and then I give him a worried look before I lean in and very purposefully kiss him. “This is mine,” I whisper against his lips, kissing him again. “And this is mine.” My hand curls around his groin. “Anything else… I don’t want to hear about.”

“You have nothing to worry about, baby. I love you very much.”

“I love you too. Have fun.”

He kisses me one last time, but as the jeering and cat calls start pouring out of our respective rides, we finally part and go our separate ways.

The flow of alcohol begins in the limo and continues the moment we arrive at our resort. We’re greeted in the main lobby with another tray of champagne and then escorted up to the executive penthouse suite, where all the bars have been unlocked and an array of cocktail mixers have been laid over the table.

“James,” Grace says nervously to the bodyguard that came along with Mia to the airport. “You’ll keep an eye on all of this tonight… with the girls?” She waves her arms at all the alcohol, and her CPO nods.

“Of course, Ma’am.”

“We’re not even going to be here, Mom,” Mia says. “After dinner, Tibby and I are going shopping in the Forum Shops and then coming back here and hanging out at the pool.”

“Alright, dear.” She leans down and kisses the top of Mia’s hair just as Kate calls everyone’s attention by clanging a fork against a bottle of Grey Goose.

“Ladies, make yourselves a cocktail and then go get ready for an amazing night out. Dinner at Ra in an hour!” She squeals with excitement and then pulls my arm to lead me into the largest bedroom in the suite.

The proficiency in which Kate gets the both of us ready is almost terrifying, especially when she shoves me into the cavernous shower in the bathroom and then immediately climbs in after me. Her hands fly like lightning as she adds product to my hair and face over the bathroom sink and I’m amazed at how she does one thing to me, then something completely different to herself, without ever missing a beat.

“Aaaaaaand, done,” she says with pride, and then smiles. “You look hot, Ana.”

She’s right. As I glance around her to the mirror, I’m almost taken aback. The contour she applied is flawless and my hair is perfectly silky, straight, and so shiny it looks like I just walked off the set of a Pantene commercial. Though the rose gold, sequined dress she slips me into has ¾ sleeves and a high neckline, it’s probably tighter and shorter than I think Christian would be comfortable with, but it actually looks really great on me. It’s exactly the confidence boost I need, not only for tonight, but for this entire weekend, so, as I hop off the stool in front of the mirror, I grin at her, finally ready for my last fling before the ring.

Surprisingly, Grace is the one who takes the longest to get ready, so Kate, Gwen, and I wait around the counter with Mia and Tabitha, working our way through our third cocktail. I can already feel my head begin to swim and we haven’t even left the hotel room yet, but as I reach for one of the water bottles on the counter to try and slow down the effect of the alcohol, I’m distracted by Kate and Ros suddenly whooping. When I turn to look, I see Grace coming out of her bedroom and my mouth nearly drops to the floor. She looks phenomenal.

“Damn, Mom!” Mia exclaims.

“Don’t say damn, dear… but thank you.” She twirls to show off her sparkling black cocktail dress, her face lit up with bashful, but very pleased, embarrassment.

“You don’t think it’s too much?”

“Definitely not. You’ve still got it, Mama Grey,” I tell her.  

She winks. “That’s right. You girls may have nabbed my boys, but let’s not forget who landed the original Grey.”

We all laugh as she pops her hip out and then gather our things before heading downstairs where the Escalade is still waiting to take us to dinner.

It’s almost a little isolating in the car, because the way we’re seated leaves Kate and I kind of on our own, like an island, while Gwen, Mia, Tabitha, and Grace can all talk with each other. It’s nice though, because it gives me a moment alone with my best friend that I might not get again before the wedding.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I reply, but like she always does, she picks up on the hesitation in my voice.

“Uh oh. You’re not… changing your mind?”

“No, it’s not that. I want to be Christian’s wife more than anything, that’s the thing I keep clinging to… But the wedding, it’s kind of ridiculous. I don’t know why Christian wants all of the… noise.

“You know… I’ve said to Elliot over and over again that this big white wedding you’re having doesn’t feel like you and Christian. He’s normally so private…”

“Right? I don’t understand any of this, unless… I know he still has nightmares about me leaving him again and he has triggers for things that remind him of when we weren’t together, so part me wonders if he’s doing this huge ceremony to feel more secure. He wants me to make a statement about my commitment to him, a big one, that I can’t back out of because I made that statement to the entire world.”

“But you won’t…”

“I know.” I take a deep breath and sigh. “Or maybe he’s making the statement. He’s finally tied me down and he wants the world to know I’m his. Like property. This whole thing kind of feels like a big cattle auction, and I’m up for bid.”

She bites her lip. “I don’t know… it’s weird, I’ll give you that, but Christian loves you, Ana. He probably just wants to celebrate that in a big, big way.”

“That’s what he says. And, I don’t know… maybe.” I feel the stress and anxiety I felt in the bridal shop begin to creep back over me, so I quickly shake my head and try to change the subject.

“I don’t want to talk about the wedding right now, or tonight. Tell me about you. What’s going on with you and Elliot?”

She frowns. “Nothing. Nothing is going on.”

“Why? I thought you two were making progress? He’s all over you…”

“I know, and I thought so too. He even took me to dinner a few days ago and told me he’s still in love with me. He wants to get back together.”

“Well, then… Great!”

She shakes her head. “Nothing’s changed though. He still doesn’t want marriage, he still doesn’t want kids. He’s willing to promise me forever, but it’s just a promise between him and I. I was hoping seeing how happy Christian is with the wedding coming up and with Calliope, that he would change his mind, but no. It’s just not the future he wants.”

“That’s–” I stop, not really sure what to say to her, and then sigh in defeat. “I’m so sorry, Katie.”

She pulls her bottom lip into her mouth, sucking on it for a moment, and as I watch her, I notice her eyes glassing over with the tears she’s trying to hold back.

“I don’t know what to do. I want him, Ana. It’s so hard being around him and not being able to touch him the way I want to, or kiss him, or take him home with me and just… rip into him. Being around him all the time… I’m craving physical intimacy. And I love him. I really, really love him, and I don’t want to be with anyone else. Ever. And I don’t want him to be with anyone else. When I think about him and Gia, his hands on her body, his mouth…” She pauses, hanging her head. I reach over to pull her into me so I can wrap my arms around her, but she pulls away and gives me an almost pleading look. “I think I just have to give up on trying to change him, or change his mind, accept what is, and let myself be happy. Even if it means giving up marriage or ever having a child.”

I feel that like a punch to the heart. Calliope is only eleven weeks old, but I’ve already completely forgotten what life was like without her. She’s changed me and shown me the true extend of my ability to love another human being. Even thinking about her now makes me ache to have her in my arms… The idea that Kate may never have that for herself feels devastating.

“Is that really what will make you happy?” I ask.

She shrugs. “What would you have done? If Christian told you that he wouldn’t marry you and he wouldn’t give you children, would you have walked away?”

No.

Not for anything.

Thankfully, Christian was not only willing to give me those things, but he wanted them too. And as I look at the pain in Kate’s eyes, I once again feel a wave of guilt over my reservations about the wedding Christian wants. Kate might never have any of this, and here I am worrying over the details of one day out of the rest of forever.

“I’m going to tell him when we get back,” she says, reading my answer in my silence. “If he’s really committed to me, if he’s really in this forever, I don’t need a ring and I don’t need wedding. All I need is him.”

I nod, and then lean over to kiss her on top of her head. She takes a deep breath to gather herself again, and as the limo comes to a stop, she turns and smiles at me. “Enough with the heavy. Let’s go celebrate you.”

 

The restaurant, Ra, ends up being a sushi place, which serves some of the best salmon rolls I’ve ever had. We talk and laugh with each other until Kate has everyone around the table tell their favorite story about Christian and I. Gwen’s is a little embarrassing, as I’ve only really hung out with her a few times and thus her story centers around the time she and I halfway talked about the size of Christian’s penis. Mia’s involves me falling down a mountain on skis and Christian nearly beating the shit out of Elliot, and Kate simply talks about all the times we would have dinner together in Cambridge, both from our freshman year and my senior year, and she would just stop and watch the way Christian looked at me.

“It’s an incredible thing,” she says. “Being able to see the way you love each other. It fills my heart with so much joy to know that my best friend has found her soulmate.”

“Katie…” Tears well in my eyes as I lean over to wrap her in a tight hug and as she whispers how much she loves me into my ear, we both break down into full on tears.

“Alright,” Luke says from the seat on my other side. “I think we can slow down on the alcohol a little…” He reaches over to take the cocktail in front of me, but I turn and glare at him.

“I’m getting married, I’m allowed to be emotional. You should prepare yourself, I’m going to be crying a lot over the next few days.”

“But not tonight,” Kate sniffs. “Tonight is about celebrating.” She wipes the moisture away from her eyes and reaches into the bag she’s brought along with her. “Okay, we’re going to start our night with a little scavenger hunt, and once you’ve done everything on the list, we’ll end up at a nightclub where we can dance the rest of the night away.”

“Oooh, a scavenger hunt?” Grace asks. “Fun.”

“It’s a little naughty,” Kate says, and then turns to look at Mia and Tabitha. “You two, make yourselves scarce.”

“Fine,” Mia sighs. She gets out of her chair and comes around the table to hug me. “Have fun, Ana. I can’t believe that you’re going to be my real life sister in only two days. I’m so excited.”

“I love you, Meems.”

“You too.” I kiss her on the cheek as she pulls away, and after waving good-bye to her mom, she, Tibby, and her CPO leave the restaurant to have their own fun for the night.

“Alright,” Kate says, bringing the attention back to her. “Now, Ana. I need you to promise me that you’re going to do everything on this list, exactly as you’re instructed. No chickening out, you promise?”

I give her a suspicious look. “I don’t know, Kate….”

“Oh come one, Ana,” Gwen presses me. “Live the night to the fullest!”

“I promise I won’t make you like… cheat on Christian. Well, not a lot anyway.”

“Kate!”

“Kidding! This is just meant to loosen you up and make tonight a truly memorable experience. Nothing too crazy.”

I sigh. “Alright… if it’s not too crazy.”

“Great! Then let’s get started.” She looks down at the list in her hand and smiles at me. “Ladies, who wants to go see some hot, half naked Australian boys?”

Gwen rolls her eyes, but Kate and Grace’s excitement is enough to negate her lack of interest in male genitalia, and we all return to the Escalade in a fit of giggles. I actually wondered, when Elliot finally talked Christian into letting him throw a Vegas bachelor party, if Thunder From Down Under would be a part of what Kate had planned, but when we step into the limo and I see three extraordinarily well built men sitting on the pink upholstery waiting for us, I very quickly realize we’re not going to a show.

“Kate!”

She grins, reaches into her purse, and pulls out an enormous stack of ones. “Have a seat, Annie!”

I think my face must be beat red as she forces me down into a seat, and once a very uncomfortable Luke, Harrison, and Kommer have taken their seats and closed the door behind them, music fills the car and the men get up and start dancing.

It doesn’t take long before they’re stripped down to essentially nothing, and all of the something that’s covered by nothing, is right in my face. I let out an embarrassed squeal as two of them tie my wrists down with silk scarves, and as the third one climbs over my lap and begins grinding all over me, he looks down and flashes me a white, toothy smile.

“Is that alright, baby?”

“Uh…”

“She’s fine,” Kate laughs. “She’s used to being tied down.”

“Oh dear lord,” Grace says, and as I look over, she buries her face in her hands.

“Just relax, sweetheart,” he says. “We’re here to make you feel reeeeeeeeeeeeeal good.”

I bite down on my lip as the hip thrusting and gyrating intensifies with the music, but as the two other dancers move on to Kate and Grace, I feel a little less embarrassed. In fact, by the time we reach our second destination and my extraordinarily erotic lapdance comes to an end, the inside of my thighs are heated and aching for the attention of a certain handsome billionaire, who I know is in this city, but is also out of reach.

“That was task number one?” I ask Kate pointedly, as we get out of the limo.

She smiles. “Yep. And now for task number two. I think it’s time you start collecting things? Don’t you?”

She gives me a pointed look as she hooks her arm through mine and leads me into a building littered with stands selling alcohol on either side and tiny shops that sell clothes I don’t think I’d ever dream of wriggling into… well, unless it was for Christian’s eyes only. She leads me down the open breezeway, buying me shots or drinks at every stand we pass, until we end up in a bar that isn’t quite a club, but is filled with loud music and tons of people dancing.

It’s here where we work our way through most of the list, which  entails me getting a condom from a stranger, taking a blow job shot out of some guy I’ve never met’s lap, finding a man named Christian and convincing him to give me his phone number, and getting as many free drinks out of interested men as possible. Unfortunately for my sobriety, that isn’t a hard task to accomplish in this dress.

It’s nearly 11 by the time we stumble back to the Escalade, and Luke is already practically holding me up.

“Alright, I think it’s time to head back to the room,” he says, but Kate drunkenly shakes her head.

“No, we’ve got one more thing to do and then we’re going to the club.”

“Kate…” he tries to protest, but she leans over and places a finger over his lips.

“Shhhhhh. She’s okay. Here, Ana. Drink some water.” I take the water bottle from her and then take a deep breath before I slam half of it down. It does seem to help as I come a little bit more alert, but that may also just be from the cold, not the water itself.

“Luke,” I groan, allowing my body to fall sideways so I’m leaning against his shoulder. “You’re really one of my best friends, do you know that? Sometimes I hate that you work for Christian because I don’t want you to think you’re less important to me than anyone else in this car. I really love you. Like, a lot.”

He laughs. “You are so drunk.”

“I’m fiiiiiiiiine.”

“Mhmmm… then I’m going to need you to say right now, in front of everyone, that I’m actually your best friend. Me first, Kate second. And it will forever remain law in the eyes of this family.” He gives me a teasing smirk that make me laugh, and I lean up and kiss the tip of his nose, before melting back into his side.

“Everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord.”

He bursts out laughing as we come to a stop and then slips another water bottle into the pocket of his jacket. “Don’t wander away from me,” he says firmly, before allowing me to file out behind Kate. “If I can’t touch you, you’re too far.”

“Yes, sir,” I slur.

The last stop ends up being Caesar’s Palace, and Kate leads us all to a side courtyard with all the stealth of a spy, but while she probably assumes she’s being as smooth as 007, a more apt descriptor would probably be the Pink Panther. Or Mr. Bean.

“Okay, okay, okay,” she whispers trying to get everyone to calm down. “Ana, you’re last objective, is to take off your panties, and leave them on this statue.”

“Kate!” I exclaim. “That’s vandalism.”

“No, it’s not. Not the bad kind anyway.”

“But, these a La Perla.”

“Oh, shut up, Ana,” Gwen interjects with a giggle. “You’re going to be a billionaire in two days. You can afford to lose a pair of panties.”

“We’re going to get arrested.”

“Not if you hurry up so we can get out of here. Come on!”

“But… but…” I stand there sputtering, but under the insistent gazes of the rest of my party, even Grace who has taken to tonight like a schoolgirl on her very first night out with the girls, I eventually sigh and reach beneath my dress.

“Hurry!” Kate says, standing in front of me so no one else will see what I’m doing. I ease the lace band past my behind and then shimmy them down my legs by shaking my hips. Once they’ve pooled on the ground at my feet, I scoop them up and very quickly slide them over the tiny feet of the cupid swimming around the woman carved from stone, towering over us.

“There!” I say once I’ve pulled them up as far as they can go.

“Awesome, now let’s get out of here,” Kate squeaks, and she grabs my arm and pulls me from the courtyard as quickly as she can.

We intended to end the night at the Bellagio, but the grounds of Caesar’s Palace are so vast, that we decide it’s easier to get into Omnia here, than the club at the resort one over. Thankfully, the bouncers at the door are more than willing to let us pass the line, especially with the hundred dollar tip I fish out of my bag, and after handing my black card to the hostess, we’re led to one of the clubs most exclusive tables and brought bottle service of Skyy Vodka and Patron.

The music is loud and the ocean of people on the dance floor in front of us is obscured by confetti and glitter floating in the air and the blinding, colored strobe lights that stream through every angle of the club. Kate lays out a line of shot glasses for everyone, but as I watch her pour the clear liquid into my glass, I grip onto Luke’s sleeve and pull him close so I can shout into his ear.

“I need to pee!”

He nods, takes my hand and pulls me from the plush couches to guide me to the bathroom. It’s an interesting journey to say the least. We pass a couple pushed up against the wall and the guy’s head is beneath the girl’s dress as he squats to go down on her. I’m also pretty sure I see someone take a line of coke off the sink in the bathroom. But none of that is as shocking as coming out of the stall and finding Mia and Tabitha, reapplying lip gloss in the bathroom mirror.

“Amelia!” I exclaim. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Ana!” The tube she holds in her hand drops into the sink as she turns around to face me, shock clear on her face. “Wha–what are you doing here? I thought you were going to Hyde.”

“We changed our minds.” I watch as she stumbles backwards in her heels and then frown. “Are you drunk?”

“No,” she says quickly, but Tabitha giggles.

“Yeah.”

“How did you even get in here?”

“A Grey credit card and a pair of fake IDs.”

Mia turns to glare at Tabitha. “Will you shut up!”

“Why? She’s not your mom.”

“No, worse. She’ll tell Christian. My mom will ground me, Christian will lock me up in a tower forever and never let me out. Or worse, he’ll take away the money he promised me for Juilliard.”

“He will not,” I tell her. “But make no mistake, you are in so much trouble. Where is your CPO?”

“We… kind of ditched him in the Forum Shops…”

“Amelia…” My voice is tight as I hold back all the things I want to scream at her, remind her of the unresolved threat still looming over us and how, as one of the most important people in Christian’s life, she’s a target, and something horrible could have happened to her. Unfortunately, I’m a little too drunk for that point to come across correctly and I don’t think the bathroom of a nightclub in Las Vegas, with at least a dozen interested onlookers watching us, is the place to have that discussion. So instead, I grab her by the arm and drag her back out to the hall with me, where Luke is waiting.

“What the…” Luke begins, but I cut him off.

“James whatever his name is, he’s fired.” Mia protests as I push her forward, back to the table where Kate, Grace, Gwen, and the rest of my security team are still waiting. When I pull her down on the seat next to Kate, Grace’s eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.

“What in the world…”

“They didn’t know we’d be here. They used to fake IDs to get in.” I reach down and pick up the last shot in the line and quickly slug it down. Grace’s face turns red with anger and she immediately yanks Mia to the side to scream at her the way I wanted to in the bathroom, but Kate quickly diverts my attention, refusing to let the weight of what could have happened and the reality of what did, affect the night.

Harrison ends up escorting both Mia and Tabitha back to the room, where he will stay with them for the rest of the night, and once Luke gets the text that they’re back and safe for the night, I feel much better and am able to engage with Kate again the way she wants me to. We dance with Gwen to the booming beat, until the electric synths buzz through the club and Britney’s new song begins thumping from the speakers next to the DJ.

“Let me guess,” Luke shouts. “You love this song?”

“I do!” Kate screams, and she quickly pulls Gwen and I up onto the table. Our bodies sway together in rhythm with the uptempo beat, and as I finally lose the fight and succumb to the overpowering alcohol coursing through my system, I feel a sense of freedom and euphoria as the music pulses through my body. Everything feels so good right now, unburdened by worry about the wedding. I can feel the music in my body, moving me, and it makes me feel kind of graceful, the way only Christian usually can. A moan escapes my lips as I once again think his name, and while I grind against Kate, I feel the need for him that had been awakened earlier in the limo rear it’s head once more. That is, until the song starts to die down and I feel a hand wrap around my wrist, pulling me off the table and onto the sofa again. When I look up to see who grabbed me, I see an angry pair of gray eyes piercing into mine.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Christian yells at me, and while the extent of his anger is slightly disconcerting, I understand it when I smell the alcohol wash over my face with his breath.

“Christian? I thought you were going to 1Oak?”

“Is that why you’re half-naked, standing on a table and shaking your ass for the entire damn world to see?”

I laugh and pull him down on the sofa next to me by his shirt, then immediately move on top of him so that I’m straddling his lap.

“I thought you liked my ass?”

“I do. And so does every horny son-of-a-bitch within a hundred foot radius of you.”

“Mmm,” I hum, and then lean down and kiss him deeply, forcing my tongue in his mouth as I grind over his lap.

“Ana…”

“You want to own me, Christian? You want to put on this big show to stake your claim to the world and keep every other man from looking at me? Do it. Own me.” I kiss him again, but he eases me back.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know that I’m never going to leave you, right? You know that I love you, only you, and nothing is ever going to change that? You don’t need to the media and whole big circus, I’m already yours. But if you want to own me… own me. I want you to. Right now.” I lean down and brush my lips against his ear. “Master.

He groans and as I begin sucking his earlobe, his hands move down to my ass over my dress, but when the fabric ends and his fingers find their way between my legs, he immediately tenses.

“What the— where are your panties, Anastasia?”

I giggle. “On a baby.”

“What?!”

I grip either side of his face and kiss him again, and this time he kisses me back. Or rather, he overtakes me, dominates me with just his tongue and his lips, and it sets my libido on fire.

“I want you to fuck me, Christian.” I whisper.

He bites my bottom lip and tugs. “You’re in so much trouble, I’m not sure you really want that right now.”

I smile. “Do your worst.”

His eyes turn dark as I lean backwards, and he quickly shifts me off his lap. After helping me to my feet, he leans in to speak to Taylor and then drags me from the booth. I hear Kate calling after me, but I can’t respond. Christian is already pulling me through the tightly packed crowd, and he doesn’t stop once until we’re through the main doors, where he asks the doorman to call his car.

“The Venetian,” Christian barks at the driver, and after Taylor climbs into the front seat and closes the door behind him, we pull through the messy flow of cabs and limousines and Christian’s fingers start drumming impatiently on the leather upholstery. We’re alone, and the security partition between us and the driver is up, so I half expect him to take this opportunity to ravish me. In fact, I’m kind of hoping for it, but he doesn’t. He simply stares stoically out the side window at the break lights all around us, and continues to tap his irritation into the seat next to him with the tips of his fingers.

It takes forever to get down the long driveway from the front doors of Caesars Palace to Las Vegas Blvd, and even longer to turn into the overcrowded traffic, halted by pedestrians stumbling drunkenly through the crosswalks and across the middle of the road. I think it would have probably been much shorter to simply walk across the skybridge towards the Venetian, but the security risk of walking through this many people with only Taylor with us is too great, so… we sit and wait in the gridlock. The entire way back, Christian never speaks to me. He hardly even looks at me and I can’t tell if his silence is real anger left over from finding me in the position he did at Omnia or simply impatience. I wouldn’t blame him for the latter, my own thighs are clenched tightly together as I sit and stew in my anticipation, but the more I think about the former, the more I worry. I did tell him to do his worst…

I swallow my nerves as we finally pull up in front of the Venetian and Taylor helps me out of the back of the limousine. He doesn’t have hold of me long though as Christian quickly appears around the back of the car, takes my hand, and begins dragging me into the resort. We snake across the casino floor towards the elevators, which are mercifully empty, but the anxious grin that begins to creep into the corner of my lips at the thought of an empty elevator is immediately washed away when Taylor steps through the doors behind us. Again, it’s silent as we ride up to the penthouse and it has my nerves peaked again. When Taylor steps to the side and allows us to enter the room, finally alone, I’m almost to the point where I’m not sure I want to be.

I muse to myself what Christian’s worst could possibly look like, but when I hear the final and nearly deafening sound of the door clicking closed behind us, all thought falls out of my head and I glance up into his cold, gray eyes nervously.

“Eyes down,” he commands. I comply immediately. “You want this?”

I bite down on my lip, reminding myself that Christian would never hurt me and I’m the one always pressing for more of his kinkier predilections. With a breath, I nod.

He doesn’t respond to me, instead, his hands suddenly grip my arms tightly and push against me, forcing me into the wall at my back so that his lips can claim mine with a possessive kind of hunger. I try to kiss him back, but he bites down on my lip, making me whimper, and then begins ravishing me with his tongue again. I succumb, letting him take over and do what he’s so, so good at.

His hands find their way under my dress again and when his fingers brush against my naked lips, he growls, captures my teeth between his lips, and tugs enough that it’s just this side of painful. I groan into his mouth as first one, then a second finger finds its way inside of me, but while he pumps them fiercely in and out of me and the need for this release that has been building inside of me all night suddenly begins building out of control into a quick and hot orgasm, suddenly he stops.

“Wait, no….” I protest. He smiles against my lips.

“Oh, baby. You think I’m going to let you come now? No. You have take your punishment first.”

“Punishment?”

His hand grips tightly onto mine again so he can drag me back into the bedroom, but this time I’m so dazed from the alcohol and the still poignant ache now demanding attention between my legs, that I stumble in my heels. He catches me, lifts me over his shoulder, and continues on until he tosses me onto his bed. I turn and look at him, anticipating him removing his clothes or perhaps simply diving at me again, but he doesn’t. He sits calmly on the edge of the bed and reaches out for me.

“Come.”

Slowly, I slide off the silky bedding and move to stand in front of him. He pulls me down on top of him, with enough force that I fall, but his strong arms secure themselves around me and then, very deliberately, he lays me over his knee.

Oh…

“I’m going to spank you, Anastasia. Do you know why?”

“Because I wasn’t wearing panties.”

He lets out a dark laugh. “You weren’t wearing panties while flaunting your body to the dozens of men staring at you, coveting you. You are mine, Anastasia, and I don’t like other men having certain thoughts about what is mine. Especially, when you’re encouraging them.”

“I wasn’t, I-I–” I feel the blood rushing to my head from being splayed over Christian’s lap, and it makes the effects of the alcohol stronger, keeping me from explaining, defending myself. So, when my words cut off, he pulls the hem of my dress over my behind and inhales sharply at the sight of my bare flesh.

“Why else?”

“I… Um…”

“What did I say to you at the airport?”

“You said… um…”

“I told you not to drink too much, and then I find you hanging off of Kate on a table in a nightclub. That’s not particularly sober behavior, is it, Anastasia? Drinking I can tolerate. Excessive public intoxication on the other hand…” His tongue clicks and then his hand brushes over my backside. Even that touch stokes the fire of desire inside of me, and to my surprise, when I open my legs, his hand moves down and glides through my lips.

“Jesus, you’re already wet,” he hisses, his fingers toying with my clitoris.

“Christian, please…” I beg.

“Not yet, baby. First.” His hand disappears and then slaps, hard, against me a split second later. The shock reverberates through my whole body and yet it feeds the hunger inside of me. The part of me that craves this, that asked for this, rejoices in the brutal contact, and when his hand stops massaging my ass and disappears again, I wait for the sharp bite of pain to come again with excited anticipation.

“Yes,” I whisper, and as I bite into the folds in his slacks around his knee, he lets out a satisfied breath, and hits me again. I rejoice in blow after blow, not only for the way the heat from the pain seems to electrify my body, but in the feeling of not being in control. To put yourself completely in the hands of someone you trust and who you love is surprising liberating, almost intoxicating, and as he hits me for the final time, I find that I want more. So much more. But I don’t want to just give my submission to him, I want him to claim it.

He’s panting from need and exertion when he finally eases me off his knee. I wince slightly as I settle down onto the floor, but stop when his hand grips my chin and he forces me to look up at him.

“Enough?” he asks, his voice husky.

I don’t answer. Instead I lunge up at him, knocking him back onto the bed and kissing him hard. He isn’t stunned or taken aback, he immediately shifts me off of him and rolls me onto the bed so that he can completely cover my body with his own, effectively subduing me, and the weight of him on top of me instantly connects with all of my reward receptors.

“No, no, baby. Not tonight. Tonight, you do only as I say. Tonight, you are mine to do with as I please. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“What was that?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Mmm, good girl.” He begins moving down my body, kissing my neck and the lines of my collar bones, undressing me as he moves down my body. Once my dress is gone, and his mouth reaches my breasts, his gentle ministrations come to an end. He sucks hard on the swell of my breast, enough that I have to reach down and stop him.

“Wait, my dress… you can’t give me hickeys, they’ll show through my dress.”

His free hand reaches up and pinches my free nipple so tightly I yelp, and then his lips continue to move down over my stomach, past my hips, and between my legs.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream, and my thighs clench tightly around his head. He growls and it’s quite possibly the sexiest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I want to reach down and tangle my fingers in his hair, encourage him, hold him in place, use him while I grind against his so, so talented mouth… but I’m not sure what I am and am not allowed to do in this moment. He’s in charge. So, instead, I lie back, panting heavily and begging for more, letting the pleasure consume me.

When it starts, it burns slow. But like a spark over dry timber in the dead heat of August, the early beginnings of my orgasm quickly spread out of control through my body. It’s too much, too powerful. Every impulse I have tells me to escape him, to pull back and collect myself or risk being torn apart by the orgasm approaching much, much too quickly. I’m not going to be able to take it, but as I try and squirm away from him, his hands clamp down firmly over my hips and hold me in place.

“Fuck! Oh… oh, fuck, Christian! I can’t. Fuck, I can’t!”

He doesn’t answer, he simply rolls his tongue over my clitoris and then sucks, hard, and I’m lost. The blood pounding in my ears as my orgasm overtakes me is so loud I can’t even hear myself screaming his name. I can only feel, and what I feel is so intense, it’s as though I’ve been pushed to a higher level of understanding regarding what humans can and cannot survive through. My entire body is alive, flowing with powerful, unrelenting pleasure, and after it pulses through me again, and again, on and on, until I think I’m going to pass out, I begin to come down, and my body starts to tremble.

“Holy shit…” I whisper, but I hardly have anytime to recover. Christian takes hold of me again and flips me onto my front, grabbing me by the hips and pulling them up so I’m on my knees before him. I hear the jingle of his belt and the sound of his zipper, but once I feel the tip of his erection brush against me, he pauses.

“I love you, Anastasia.”

I cry out in surprise as he slams inside of me, harder than I’m prepared for, and he groans in satisfaction.

“That’s it, baby. There’s no one else here. Let me hear you. Scream my name.”

“Christian!”

My fingers twist into the bedding as I search desperately to feel anchored to something while he pounds into me over and over again. Each thrust is hard, fast, and made more aggressive by his hands pulling my hips back into him each time he pushes into me. With his knees, he pushes my legs as far apart as they can go so he can take me as deep as possible. His hands probe my ass, kneading my still tender flesh. When his fingers dig into my behind, it pulls my lips tighter around him, intensifying the sensation of his ardent and relentless assault. I’m hyper aware of every movement he makes, every change in angle, every increase or decrease in his cadence. My breathing comes out in harsh huffs that match his. It’s rough, savage, and astonishingly incredible.

“You like that, baby?” His voice is tight, and I wonder if he’s getting close.

“Yes. Oh, god, yes!”

He growls again. “I want you to come with me. Will you do that for me?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Fuck, baby. You make me feel so… Mmmm. This is it, Anastasia. This is all I’m ever going to want. All I’m ever going to need. I’m home, here, inside of you. I love you.”

“I love you too, Christian.”

He groans, grips more tightly to my hips, and increases the ferocity of his thrusts. I feel a quickening beginning deep inside of me and I try to hold it off, refusing to let the heat have me until Christian finds his own release, but it’s difficult. The feel of him moving in and out of me combined with the sound of his moans of pleasure is like gasoline poured directly on the fire slowly building inside of me, and as I teeter on the edge, I’m certain there’s no way I’m going to keep my balance.

“Christian… please. I’m going to…”

“Hold on. I’m almost there. Fuck, I’m almost there.”

I whimper and bite down my hip, struggling against the waves of pleasure that threaten to overwhelm me any minute. It’s no use. There’s no way I’m going to be able to stop it. But, just as I feel my body begin to succumb, Christian let’s out a deep, guttural noise that tells me he too is on the brink of release.

“Fuck, this is it,” I hisses. “Come for me, Ana. Come for me.”

The pressure inside of me releases in an instant and floods my veins with warm, welcome pleasure. I feel my orgasm pulsing through me in time with his thrusts until he finally cries out a garbled version of my name, comes violently inside of me, and together, we are lost.

The world slows. I melt into the bed beneath me, feeling as though my limbs have turned to liquid. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so relaxed until Christian moves onto the bed next to me and wraps me in his arms from behind.

“Are you still angry with me?” I ask.

“No, and I wasn’t really.”

“Liar.”

He chuckles. “Fine, I was. Mostly though, II’ve just been thinking about fucking you like that all night and now here we are. I’ll have you here next to me, naked, in my arms for the rest of the night. Who would have thought breaking the rules would be so fun?”

“I’m pretty sure Kate was the one who insisted we shouldn’t see each other tonight. I don’t ever remember agreeing to that.”

“Mmm, it’s so sexy when you fight the power, baby.”

I giggle as he holds me tighter against him, but then freeze as we hear the door to the suite open. Christian never closed his bedroom door behind us, so we’re laying here, on top of the bed, completely exposed to whoever just walked in. Thankfully though, as we both scramble to get under the blankets, we quickly realize that the intruder has no interest in investigating what may or may not be going on in Christian’s room.

“I love you, Katie,” Elliot says, each word punctuated by the sound of a kiss. “I’m never going to let you go again.”

“Never,” she agrees. “This is it, okay? You and me.”

“You and me.” We hear them kissing again and then the door to the suite opposite ours slams closed.

“Oh my god, she really did it,” I say in a breath. Christian raises an eyebrow at me, so I explain. “Kate said that she was going to get back together with Elliot. I guess she did…”

“Oh… well, great! That’s really great.” He smiles, looking genuinely happy, and then leans forward to kiss me again, and as I fall back into the pillows, I try not to let the thoughts of what Kate is giving up to be in that room with Elliot right now ruin the last night I will spend with Christian as Anastasia Steele.

Next Chapter

Chapter 39

kiss

After maybe two hours of sleep, I’m awoken much too soon by the engines of the yacht roaring to life and tugging us further away from the coast. Christian has his arm draped over me while his fingers run gently through the ends of my hair, and when I slowly open my eyes and glance over at him, I see that he still has Calliope, finally sleeping soundly, laid over his chest.

“Good morning,” I whisper hoarsely.

“Mmm,” he hums back at me, easing himself over to kiss the top of my hair. “Good morning.”

“Happy Birthday.”

He sighs. “Last year on my birthday I woke up with my cock in your mouth.” He moves his hand softly over Calliope’s back and then looks forlornly over at me. “Isn’t having kids fun?”

I let out a very tired laugh. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into her these past couple days. I can go give her to Kate if you want. Or your mom.”

“Oh, no. After how long it took her to go to sleep? We’re never moving her again. I live here now.”

I laugh again and then carefully lift myself off the bed to kiss him without waking the baby. I mean for it to be a quick, chaste good morning kiss, but when I try to pull away from him he moves his hand up to the side of my face, tenderly cups my cheek, and holds me in place. I moan softly as his lips move tantalizingly with mine and while I lose myself in the feel of him and the sound of our constrained breathing, my hand automatically reaches down his body and grips onto his waiting erection. His entire body tenses so I quickly try to withdraw my hand, but when I do, he groans.

“Do you think we can put her back to bed without waking her?”

“I think we should definitely try…”

He gives me a lascivious grin and then places the palm of his hand over the back of Calliope’s head so that he can hold her firmly against his chest while he sits up. I stare at her with the same nervous concentration I imagine someone would feel while watching a bomb being defused, but Christian is able to ease himself out of the bed and gently lay our daughter inside her bassinette without disturbing her. He takes a few careful steps back towards the bed, facing her and watching her carefully, but the only movement she makes is the gentle rise and fall of her chest while she sleeps. Once he’s absolutely sure the transfer has been successful, he turns back to me and his eyes cloud over with the intensity of his desire.

“Open your legs,” he commands briskly. I comply immediately and then watch him hungrily as he climbs into the bed over the top of me. My fingers trace up the well defined lines of the muscles in his arms as he leans down to kiss me, but just as I feel the pressure of his weight pressing me into the mattress, there’s a loud knock on our bedroom door that wakes Calliope.

“Wakie, wakie, birthday boy,” Elliot’s high, teasing tone comes through the door. “Mommy made you breakfast, schnookums.”

Christian props himself up on his elbows over me, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as though he’s looking deep inside himself for patience he simply can’t summon over Calliope’s angry cries. “I’m going to kill him,” he says at last. “We’re in international waters, there isn’t anyone around us for hundreds of miles. I think I’m actually going to kill him.”

I giggle and push against his chest to roll him off of me. “Don’t. He’s the only one who can get the baby to stop crying.”

 

Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to calm my very sleepy baby down. She fusses a little as I carry her out to the dining room where the rest of the family is waiting, but once I’ve settled down next to Christian and given her the bottle the staff have warmed for breakfast, it takes only minutes for her to fall back asleep.

“Chocolate chip pancakes,” Grace says proudly, setting a giant, overfilled platter in the middle of the table. “Happy birthday, Christian.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he replies, and I find myself glancing worriedly over at her as she begins to serve him, wondering if she’s picked up on the bitterness in his tone. I don’t think she does though, because when she moves on to fill Mia’s plate, she’s beaming. She has her entire family around one table, healthy, happy, and enjoying each other’s company. I doubt there’s anything that could get to her right now. Not even me groggily swaying back and forth through the morning conversation, or Christian’s obvious yawns over his pancakes.

Once we begin eating, everyone seated around the table begins passing several different expensive gifts, and a few silly ones from Kate and Mia, to Christian before the discussion turns to our plans for the day. I expect Elliot to dismiss anything that doesn’t involve 250 horsepower jettisoning him through the choppy ocean water, but when Kate looks over at Christian and I practically falling asleep in our breakfast, she suggests we all hang around the yacht, relax, and spend some time with the whole family, and he doesn’t put up an argument.

“What are you sick or something?” Mia asks, raising an eyebrow at him.

“No, just sore. Christian bought those new machines and they’re fucking heavy.” He rolls out both of his shoulders to stretch his sore muscles and Christian smirks at him.

“You need to start lifting heavier, Elliot. You’re getting soft.”

“Shut up, Christian. I don’t need your advice, thank you very much. Shouldn’t you be out working on your dad bod or something?”

“You seem to be doing a good enough job on that for the both of us.”

Elliot narrows his eyes. “I’ll fight you.”

“That’s okay,” Christian shrugs. “I bench more than you.”

“Psht, doubt it.”

“I’m just saying… you should have maybe taken advantage of having Gia around when you did. That girl knew her way around a gym. Why don’t you call her up and see if she’ll train with you?”

“Because I don’t want to, Christian,” Elliot snaps, emphasizing Christian’s name as he glances sideways at Kate. “That relationship is exactly where it should be. In the past.”

“So you haven’t heard from her?” Christian asks.

“No!”

“Not even an angry post break up text or a late night booty call?”

“No, Christian, I haven’t heard from her since she moved out of my house and I haven’t wanted to. We’re done, she’s out of my life. Drop it.”

“Hmm…” He frowns as he reaches for his glass of water, and as Elliot unsuccessfully tries to change the subject from across the table, I reach down and grip the free hand he rests absentmindedly on my knee.

“Everything okay?”

“Fine.”

“Then why the sudden interest in Gia?” The table falls silent and, as everyone turns to look at Christian and I, Elliot drops his silverware out of frustration and it clangs loudly against his plate.

“For the love of god, can we please stop talking about her?”

“No,” Christian says. “I’m afraid we can’t.”

“Christian?” Carrick checks, and with a deep breath, Christian pulls his hand away from mine and rests them flat over the table.

“Taylor can’t find her,” he says at last. “She was at Ana’s baby shower when we announced Calliope’s name, and because she had her own security, who attended Taylor’s meeting the day that Ana was kidnapped, she knew Ana would be alone. She went on family vacations with us, she was at family dinners, she and I were alone in a gym together on several occassions… She’s one of Taylor’s prime suspects for the inside leak but, to the day she moved out of your house, we can’t find anything on her. She hasn’t purchased any property or applied for a mortgage or lease, the tabs on the license plates of her car are expired, and her insurance wasn’t renewed. We tried tracing the number we had to find her, but her phone has been turned off and none of her bank cards have been used since April. She’s just… gone.”

“Gone?” Elliot repeats. “She can’t be gone, where would she go?”

I get a sickening feeling deep in my stomach when I turn and look at Christian, only to see him raise his eyebrows at Elliot in a way that suggests the answer to his question should be obvious. And it is obvious. Elena said there were more we didn’t know about, but if we didn’t know them, they wouldn’t be targets. Just like Hyun. Just like Leila.

“You said there were dings in the walls when she moved out…” I say, turning to look at Elliot. “What if that wasn’t from furniture? What if there was a struggle?”

His eyes dart back and forth as he considers this and the color slowly drains from his face, but he quickly composes himself and shakes his head. “No, she texted me after she was out, she left a note at work saying she was quitting…”

“Handwritten or typed?” Christian asks.

Elliot takes a breath and then mashes his lips together, refusing to answer as he looks down at the half eaten pancakes in front of him, and Christian nods.

“I’m going to need the security footage of your building from that day. We need to see who left that letter.”

He nods, looking almost sick, but as he picks up his own drink, Mia coughs uncomfortably from the other end of the table.

“Ummm, Christian….?”

“Yeah, Meems?”

“I um… I think that…”

Her words cut off when an unexpected thumping sound echos around the room so loudly it makes everyone jump and both Kate and I scream in surprise. We turn to the source of the sound, my adrenaline spiking and rushing through my blood, but realize it was just a bird flying into the window. As I place my hand over my racing heart though, Calliope starts to cry again.

“Oh, Calli-lily,” I say, rocking her gently in my arms as she screams her displeasure at being woken for a second time this morning through the startled silence still hovering over the table. “Shhh, it’s okay. Ugh, she’s so tired.”

“We’re supposed to feel bad about her not getting enough sleep?” Christian says through another great yawn, but as I reach of over and gently push him, he slowly gets out of his seat and nods to the archway behind him. “Why don’t we take her back to bed? She’ll sleep better separated from the noise of everyone enjoying Mom’s delicious breakfast, and you and I can try to get another hour or so of rest before we start our day.”

“Okay,” I agree. Christian helps me out of my chair and I quickly cross the table to give Grace a hug. “Thank you for breakfast, it was delicious.”

“You’re welcome. Enjoy your nap.”

“I will. Believe me, I will.”

She smiles as I walk around the table, pausing to lean down and kiss my father on the cheek, but before Christian reaches out for me, he stops and rests his hand on Mia’s shoulder.

“We’ll talk later, okay?” She gives him a tight smile and nods, then Christian places his hand on my lower back and leads me out of the dining room towards the stairs.

 

Once we get Calliope down for the third time this morning, Christian cuddles up next to me in bed and begins to kiss me softly up and down the curve of my neck, but while I’m sure the heavy petting is meant to lead to sex, we both fall asleep before either one of us can even remove any clothes. It’s nice though. The hour long nap in Christian’s arms provides us with just enough energy to enjoy the rest of the afternoon with our family, and Calliope isn’t disturbed again until she wakes on her own, ready for another bottle.

After moving back out to the main living space to rejoin the others, we sit on a pair of lounge chairs out on the deck under a huge white umbrella while Kate, Mia, and Elliot splash around in the pool, our father’s take to fishing again, and Grace curls up on the couch beside us with a romance novel. Christian is in heaven having uninterrupted time to play with our daughter, and while I laugh along with the two of them, I can’t help but refocus my attention once again on Kate and Elliot and how they’re behaving towards one another.  I notice that Kate has masterfully covered the scar in her skin with a black one piece swimsuit that’s cut low enough in the front to not make any one question her sudden inclination towards modesty. Elliot seems plenty enough distracted by the cleavage she’s showing and as I catch him not so subtly staring at her for the tenth time this afternoon, Christian nudges me with his elbow and nods towards them.

“If they have sex on my birthday and I don’t, I’m going to be fucking pissed.”

“They’re not going to have sex,” I tell him. “They’re not even together.”

“Mhmm,” he hums disbelievingly, and as I roll my eyes and turn back to look at the pool, I watch Elliot chase Mia out of the water onto the smooth, teak deck.

“Just give in, Mia,” he threatens her. “You’re going underwater and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“I don’t think so. Not by you!” They run two laps around the pool, Mia just managing to avoid the very tips of his fingers as he reaches for her, and then she sprints to the waist high rail that surrounds the third story deck and climbs on top of it.

“Amelia!” Grace shrieks in terror, but Mia just looks back at us with a wicked grin and launches herself off the rail, somersaulting down until we all hear the loud splash in the ocean below. Christian passes Calliope to me and immediately bolts out of his seat, hurrying to the rail where Elliot is already standing in shock, but after an agonizing few seconds of panic, relief colors both of their faces when the sounds of Mia’s laughter echo up to us from the water.

“Mia, are you crazy?” Elliot shouts down at her.

“Awh, come on. Don’t be a baby, Elliot. Jump!”

“You have no idea what’s down there!” Christian argues.

“Yes I do! Ocean! Come on, Christian! YOLO!” Mia begins making chicken sounds up at her brothers, but as they both glance at one another, silently questioning what they should do, Kate shimmies in between them.

“Excuse me, gentleman,” she says, and just like Mia, she climbs onto the railing, springs high into the air, and tumbles over the side of the yacht in a graceful dive that creates a splash so subtle, I can’t hear her hit the water from where I’m sitting. Thankfully, Elliot smiles, which I take as a sign that she’s made it over alright, and climbs on the railing to cannonball after her.

“Oh good lord,” Grace says, cringing away from her children and shaking her head. I should have followed her lead because while Grace picks up her book again, Mia and Elliot both call out for Christian, and like the fool he is, he too climbs up on the rail.

“Christian!” I scream, but it’s too late. Like Kate, he leaps off the side with the grace of a professional high diver and plummets into the ocean below. I turn panicked eyes on Grace, who automatically reaches out and gestures for me to pass her the baby, and then rush to the rail. He’s just emerging from the white cloud of bubbles in the water below as I lean over the side of the yacht.

“Are you crazy?” I yell at him as he quickly turns his head away from the wave of water Elliot throws at him with his arm. “You’re a father now!”

“It’s not as high as it looks,” he calls back to me. “And it’s fun. Come on, baby.”

I cross my arms and shake my head at him. “You’re insane.”

“Ana! Ana!” Mia begins to chant, but when I cock my head to the side and give both of them a look which makes it clear that climbing over this railing is simply not going to happen for me, Christian nods to the end of the boat and reaches through the water to begin pulling himself towards it.

“Come to the bottom deck, we’ll pull the jet skis out.” Immediately Mia, Kate, and I turn to look at Elliot. His shoulders rise from the water and he lets out a heavy breath.

“I mean… if we have to.

Laughter sounds over the water as Kate splashes water into his face and begins swimming after Christian, while I turn back to Grace. “Are you okay? I don’t have to go if you’ve had enough baby time this weekend.”

“If you try to take this baby from me, I will scream.” Her face is hard and serious as she says the words, but as I gape back at her, she smiles and lets out a soft breathy laugh. “Go, Anastasia! Have fun with the man you love. Calliope and I will be just fine.”

“Alright,” I agree, although hesitantly as I really could just stay here the rest of the afternoon losing myself in the feel of her in my arms and her perfect angelic face. Especially since Christian has been hogging her all day, and it already feels as though I’ve barely been able to hold her. “Just call if you need us to come back.”

“I will,” she promises.

“Have fun, kiddo!” my dad calls over his shoulder from the port side of the deck. “Just stay on the other side or you’ll scare all the fish away.”

I laugh. “Yes, daddy.”

After kissing Grace quickly on the cheek and thanking her for sitting with Calliope, I rush to the bedroom and change into a swimsuit. It’s a little revealing for how comfortable I’m feeling with my body right now, so I slip a loose, open knit tunic over my head to try and cover up a little before darting down the steps to the bottom deck, where I find the others jumping and diving off the much more sturdy railing into the cool, deep blue water below. I shiver slightly as my bare feet touch the wet wood on the sun drenched deck and then watch as Christian tucks his body from on top of the steel rail and then pushes back, stretching towards the water in a much too easy looking back flip.

“Show off,” Kate says, but she too climbs on the rail, takes a deep breath and then leaps into the air, folding her body in a perfect pike before she falls backwards into an arrow straight dive.

“You two could give a guy a complex,” Elliot says.

“Sucks to suck,” Christian laughs from somewhere in the water.

“Oh, yeah?” Elliot looks over at Mia and they exchange an evil grin with one another before backing up several paces and leaping over the railing together. The resulting splash is so big, I can see it over the solid rail, from the back of the deck and, judging by Kate’s scream, it completely covers both her and Christian. There’s a series of smaller splashing sounds in the water, until I see Christian swim up to the boat launch off the back of the yacht and pull himself out of the waves. His hand reaches up to wipe the excess water off his face and, though he’s already smiling broadly, his face brightens even further when he sees me standing there.

“I thought we were jet skiing?” I ask, my voice accusatory.

“We will. But the water is great. You should swim with us for a while.”

I shake my head and pout my lips. “It’s cold.”

“Not really.” He reaches out for my hand as though he’s going to tug me towards the water and I immediately flinch away.

“Don’t…”

“Don’t?” he repeats, and then he smiles again for half a second before shaking his head with dismay and taking a step back. “Well, if you don’t want to get wet…”

“I do not,” I affirm. He nods and moves to turn away from me, but, so fast I hardly even have time to react, he turns back, leans down to grab me tightly behind the legs and throws me over his shoulder.

“Christian!” I scream in protest, but he doesn’t stop. He moves quickly to the boat launch and, ignoring my screams and the furious way I move my arms and legs to escape from him, he dumps me overboard. My lungs seem to almost seize as the icy water permeates every pore of my body and when I break through the surface again, gasping for air and see him smiling at me, I shake my head and narrow my eyes.

“You are so fucking dead,” I threaten him. He laughs and dives back into the water right beside me, and I wait for him to re-emerge before I immediately place both of my hands on top of his head and force him under again. He captures one of my legs underwater to pull me down with him and as we both come back up for air, I’m lost to a fit of giggles as we splash one another. He generates far more water than I do however, as his arms really are much thicker than mine, so I quickly swim backwards and use my feet to churn up as much as I can to push back at him. Unfortunately it’s not a very well thought out plan because I’ve only just got him with one really good splash when his hand wraps around my ankle and I find myself being dragged back towards him until he wraps my legs around his waist, pulls me flush against him, and kisses me hard on the mouth.

“I love you,” he tells me.

“I love you too,” I reply. “Even though I think you’re kind of a butthead right now and you taste like salt.”

He laughs and dumps me backwards into the water again.

 

We spend the rest of the afternoon swimming around the yacht and then finally cruising through the water on the jet skis. It’s a much less… erotic activity than it was last year when he had the silver balls inside of me, but it’s nice being able to wrap myself around him while the cool sea spray sprinkles over our legs and the hot June sun shines on us from above. There’s even a brief period where he turns control over to me, although it’s very brief because I manage to dump us both in the water while trying to jump through Elliot’s wake. Still, by the time we pull back into the yacht and head up to the main deck where dinner is being served, my face hurts from smiling so much throughout the day and I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks. I was right, we needed this weekend. And from the way Christian looks, happy, and actually as young as he truly is, he needed it too.

“I take it you didn’t catch anything today…” Elliot says, taunting his father slightly as we sit down at the table to a plate of chicken.

“Yeah, a bunch of rowdy kids came tearing through the water on a bunch of jet skis,” Carrick says, narrowing his eyes at him. “Funny how we didn’t catch anything.”

“The nerve of some people,” Elliot smiles back. Carrick laughs and reaches over to clap him on the shoulder just as Grace passes me a bowl of salad.

“So, Ana, I’ve been meaning to ask if you’ve found a venue for the wedding yet? I called the archbishop at St. Andrews and they’ve had a cancellation at the end of July. Infidelity, terrible… but wonderful for you and Christian.”

“Actually, Christian and I were also hoping to talk to you about that this weekend. I think we’ve decided that instead of the big, white wedding, we’d rather have a small ceremony at your house, if that’s okay?”

“Really?” Her face lights up. “Oh, absolutely! We could use the boat house for your bridal suite and make a carpet of rose petals down to the water for your aisle. I know exactly where we’ll have the ceremony. Oh! And on the west lawn we can set up a tent for your reception with a dance floor and flowers and lights. We’ll have the perfect view of the sun setting over the lake. It’ll be absolutely beautiful!”

“Thanks, Mom,” Christian interrupts. “But I actually don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“What?” I ask, turning a very confused look on him.

“Andrea found an opening at Thornewood. It’s a castle over in Lakewood and it’s really quite stunning. Very opulent and luxurious, the pictures will be phenomenal. We can get married out in the gardens, there’s a grand ballroom for the reception, and they can accommodate up to 250 guests, which means we only need to eliminate a hundred names from our original list.”

“You mean… your original list,” I counter. “I thought we agreed we wanted a small ceremony with just close friends and family?”

“Because we were having to compromise… This place will do anything and everything you want. However you want it.”

“But… I-I…”

He grips my hand reassuringly. “You’re going to love it, Anastasia. I promise. Our wedding is going to be beautiful, exactly the way you always dreamed. And I’ve made sure Andrea will have the capacity to help you with whatever you need so we can get this done without overwhelming you.”

“Wait, so you’ve already booked it?”

He nods. “I put the deposit down yesterday.”

“Christian…” I take a deep breath to quell my rising frustration and slowly count to ten. As I do, images of the wedding he describes flashes through my mind. Me in an extravagant white gown, walking down the aisle to the slow melody of soft music floating around me and through a crowd of faceless people to the place where Christian is waiting for me under a stunning canopy of white wisteria. I can picture him taking me into his arms in the middle of an empty dancefloor, beaming at me as he twirls me around through the group of onlookers and camera flashes. I can envision our toast and cutting an enormous wedding cake, which we feed each other graciously instead of smashing into the other’s faces. It’s a beautiful dream, one I think any girl would want, but it just doesn’t feel like us.

Will I be happy with a wedding that feels as though it was meant for someone else? Ten years from now, when I look at the undoubtedly beautiful pictures of what should be the happiest day of my life, will I feel any regret that I didn’t stand up for what I really wanted? I don’t know. But it’s not often Christian isn’t willing to give me exactly what I want, and since this is the second time he’s insisted on a lavish ceremony, it must be important to him. Perhaps there’s a reason that he’s not telling me. Some deep rooted insecurity that seems to come out anytime the concept of forever between him and I comes up. Looking at him now, and the uncertainty behind his eyes, I wonder if that’s exactly it. When I brought up Astor’s inclusion on the guest list, he’d argued that he’d wanted to make a statement that I was his and he was mine. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely truthful. Perhaps he wants that statement for himself and the grand wedding fulfils that need for him. Looking at him now, and the careful uncertainty reflected in his eyes, I actually think that may be the exact reason.

I take a breath and nod. “Okay. If you love it, then I’m sure I will too. I can’t wait to see it.”

He smiles at me and then lifts my fingers to his lips. “Me either.”

 

After dinner, we move back into the sitting room where we’d played games the night before, and while we spend most of the night talking as a family and taking turns with a very silly Calliope sprawled out on her favorite blanket in the middle of the floor, eventually her playful mood subsides and as Grace takes her back into her arms, a heavy silence falls over the room. We all seem to glance at one another, unsure of what to do, and when Elliot begins looking for the remote to turn on the satellite TV so he can get an update on the Mariners, Grace lets out a low cough to clear her throat.

“So…” she says coyly. “I brought Mia’s cello and Elliot’s old guitar. It’s been so long since I’ve heard the three of you play together, I thought tonight you’d give us all a little treat.” Her eyes move over to the piano Christian had put in the corner of the sitting room last summer. Christian and Elliot make eye contact, silently asking one another if they’re up to it, but Mia scoffs and shakes her head.

“I don’t want to play with Elliot.”

“Why not?” Elliot asks, clearly offended.

“Because you never practice,” she says. “And I don’t really feel like playing an exciting medley of Row Row Row Your Boat and Mary Had a Little Lamb for our family right now.”

“I know much more than that.” He rolls his eyes as he gets off the couch and disappears through the archway that leads to main cabins, and when he returns there is an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder that he tunes as he walks. Christian once again lifts our conjoined hands to place a gentle kiss against the tips of my fingers and then peels himself off the couch to take his place at the piano bench. I watch them say something quietly to one another, and once Christian nods, Mia folds her arms across her chest in defiance and we all settle back as the first high note from the piano sounds around us.

I can vaguely recognize the melody of what they’re playing, but without the tell-tale 80s synths and beat from the drums, I can’t place the song until Elliot looks up at Kate and begins to sing lyrics I recognize.

I’ve been waiting, for a girl like you, to come into my life. I’ve been waiting, for a girl like you, a love that will survive. I’ve been waiting, for someone new, to make me feel alive. Yeah, waiting, for a girl like you, to come into my life.”

Grace begins swaying next to me and my dad keeps the beat with his foot and his thumb drumming against his leg, but Elliot doesn’t shift his focus away from Kate. Their eyes stay locked on one another as Elliot very purposefully sings each and every lyric directly towards her, and when the final notes of the music he and Christian play slowly fades away and we all break into applause, still, his eyes never leave hers.

“What are the rules about Foreigner in this house?” Carrick asks pointedly.

“That they’re the greatest foreign invasion since the Beatles?” Mia replies with a laugh, but when Carrick turns to glare at her, Elliot slams his hand down over the strings of his guitar and he and Christian pick up the beginning riffs of Working Man by RUSH. Over the next hour, they take requests for songs and I’m impressed by Christian’s ability to generally get through anything we throw at them. Eventually though, after dozens of old country songs my father asks to hear and entirely too much old ‘70s rock that only the Grey children know, Kate and Mia begin to get restless.

“Can we play something from this century, please?” Mia begs.

“Britney Spears literally came out with an album like three months ago,” Kate interjects. “What are you even doing with your lives?”

“No, no, no,” Grace interrupts. “Something from Adele. Oh, I just love her new album.”

“Ugh, Adele is so boring,” Mia complains. “We need something fun that we can get up and dance to. Like Kesha, or that new Rihanna song. What is it, S&M?”

“It does feature Britney Spears,” Kate says, but Christian shakes his head.

“I’m not playing that song.”

“Yes, thank you,” I say dryly. “What about Bruno Mars? I sing Just The Way You Are to Calliope before bed every night. She loves it.”

“Uh, Dr. Dre or nothing,” Elliot says, and while that starts a whole new argument over rap vs. pop between him and his sister, Christian puts a stop to it with the simple press of his fingers against the piano keys and few soft sung lyrics.

I wanna be a billionaire so fucking bad… by all of the things I never had.” The room erupts into laughter, but the pause is short lived before Elliot joins in on the guitar. “I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine, smiling next to Oprah and the Queen. Oh everytime I close my eyes, I see my name in shining lights. Yeah. A different city every night oh I, I swear, the world better prepare, for I’m a billionaire.

I squeal as Elliot takes over the rap part of the song and Kate pulls me off to dance with her. We all laugh at the ridiculousness and irony of the song not only being played on a multimillion dollar yacht, but that Christian Grey himself continues to sing the chorus. Even Carrick buries his hand to hide his laughter as he shakes his head, and Grace makes a face at Calliope, who seems to be entranced by the people dancing all around her. Kate practically falls over when the song ends as she dissolves into a fit of giggles, and while I grip tightly onto her, gripping my side, which is a little sore from laughing so hard, Elliot places his guitar back in his case and turns to Christian.

“You know, that song makes me realize how much you’re slacking there, Christian. What have you even done for Katrina victims?”

He laughs. “Very little.”

“Selfish.”

“You’re right. How dare I be seventeen.” He rolls his eyes, but Elliot just smiles.

“How dare you indeed.”

Christian reaches up and softly punches Elliot in the arm, which makes him laugh and hold out his hand to help Christian off the piano bench. It’s late now, so my father gets up to excuse himself for the night, which Grace and Carrick also take advantage of, and while they say goodnight to each of us, Elliot finally finds the remote and flips the TV to ESPN. Kate curls up on the couch next to him and Mia reaches for a magazine she brought along, but Christian makes eye contact with me and very subtly nods towards the archway that leads to our bedroom. I bite my lip.

“Uh… Kate?”

“Yes, m’dear?” she replies, not looking away from the TV.

“How would you feel about watching Calliope for awhile? Just until you go to bed…”

“But for at least an hour,” Christian interjects, and as he looks at her very purposefully, a knowing smile stretches across her lips.

“Yeah, I can do that,” she says. “Happy Birthday, Christian.”

“Thank you,” he replies, his voice almost curt as he immediately reaches down for my hand and tugs me out of the room and through the archway that places us at the bottom of the stairs which lead up to our bedroom.

The moment we’re no longer in sight of Kate, Mia, and Elliot, his lips are pressed firmly into mine. I briefly feel the wall at the bottom of the stairs at my back as Christian envelops me with his body, his desirous moans punctuating the hungry sounds of our kiss while his hands greedily explore my body, until, eventually, he lifts me into his arms, wraps my legs around his waist, and carries me the rest of the way to our bed without ever pulling his lips away from mine.

The long stream of moonlight shining in through the picturesque windows of our master suite allows me to see his face in the otherwise dark room. The sound of the yacht cutting through the ocean waves echos through silence around us while his fingers pull the crochet dress over my skin. I let out a eager moan as his lips begin to leave a trail of soft kisses over every inch of skin he reveals until he finally discards the meager material on the floor next to the bed and cups the sides over each of my breasts over my bikini top, pushing them together so he can bury his face in my cleavage.

“Christian,” I breathe longingly. His tongue traces the inside swell of my breast before he looks up at me, lustful fire glinting brightly in his dark eyes.

“Soon, baby. Soon.” His mouth moves over my nipple and he flicks it gently with his tongue before enveloping the hardening bud in his mouth and moving his lips soft enough that he’s not really sucking, but I can feel the tantalizing heat combined with his saliva in each and every movement. With a wanton moan I push back into the pillow and arch my breasts higher off the bed, into his mouth, and he groans a deep, needy sound as he clutches my now wet nipple tightly between his thumb and finger and moves to my other breast. I writhe beneath him, reduced to only a vessel full of want and need, until I’m eventually able to reach between our bodies, down his swim trunks, and grip his erection firmly in my hand. He lets out an audible gasp that fuels every one of my reward centers and encourages me on.

When his mouth moves away from my nipple, I gently push him away, rolling him onto his back on the bed next to me, and then climb over the top of him. My fingers hook beneath the band of his swim trunks and the moment I free his erection, before I’ve even pushed his shorts all the way down his legs, I take his cock in my mouth and suck hungrily.

“Oh, jesus, Ana,” he groans. I hum as I once again feel my own sense of pleasure in what I’m doing to him, and then wrap my fingers around the base of his cock, working my hand in opposition to my mouth and keeping my lips tight around him as I bob up and down. The tempo of his breathing increases with my pace, and soon I feel his hands on my ass, kneading me and using his thumbs to stretch my lower lips beneath my bikini bottom, until he unravels the ties keeping my swimsuit in place and pulls against my leg so that I move over his face, straddling him.

His erection is deep in my throat when I first feel his tongue against my clitoris, and my resulting moan around his cock makes his body shiver. I push down again, taking him as deeply in my mouth as I can and hoping the tightness of my throat makes up for the times I release my lips to gasp in pleasure over the feel of his mouth moving over me. Several times, he simply kisses me. A sweet, soft peck against my most sensitive erogenous zone that feels loving and romantic and pushes me far too close to the edge, far too quickly. My legs begin to tremble, my irregular breathing makes it difficult for me to maintain the rhythm I’ve set with my mouth, and my insides clench. He lets out a breathy laugh and I can feel him smiling against me as he moves his whole face over me, invigorating me all at once.

“Baby,” he says. “Already?”

“Mmm… you’re too good.”

“Good. Come for me. I want you soaking when I start making love to you.”

I feel a rush of cool air from his lips as he blows against me, and then the heat of his tongue. He begins to suck my clitoris, rolling it gently between his lips before he laps at me again, and the combination of sensations quickly overwhelms me until I fall apart in his capable hands. My whole body shakes as I pant over his still hard and waiting erection, feeling the waves of pleasure roll over me again and again, like high tide claiming more and more of the dry sand on a beach. The entire world melts away for a long moment that seems to go on and on, prolonged by the incessant work of his tongue swirling around my clitoris, until finally, the tide begins to receded and I’m once again in control of my body.

I kiss the tip of his erection and begin to suck again, but he quickly moves me off of him and tosses me carelessly back onto the bed. His hands grip the inside of my knees and pry them apart, as wide as the will go, and as he glances down at me, his face melts with desire.

“Stay just like this,” he commands me. “I want you open and waiting for me.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need a condom. You’re not on birth control yet.”

“Oh…”

He climbs off the bed and moves to his still packed bag, which is resting on a chair pushed against the wall. From the small front pocket, he removes a ribbon of blue foil packets, tears one away, and, as he moves back to me, he rips open the foil with his teeth. My hips squirm with uncomfortable impatience, but I watch him with near awe as he rolls the latex ring over his erection.

“Are you ready?” he asks, his voice husky with his desire.

I can’t answer. Instead, I reach up and grip the roots of his hair, a little too firmly, with my fingertips and pull him down on top of me, claiming his mouth as I bask in the heat of his skin pressed against mine. While we kiss, his hips move absentmindedly so that the tip of his erection brushes against me, making me whimper until I capture his bottom lip between my teeth and tug gently.

He reaches down and begins purposefully moving his cock up and down through my lips, lubricating himself with my arousal, and when he speaks again, his voice is dripping with lust.

“Tell me what you want, Anastasia.”

“Christian, please…” The words come out in a breath and my head tilts backwards as I allow myself to be overcome with the anticipation, but his fingers wrap around my jaw and pull my face back down so that I have to look into his eyes.

“Tell me what you want, baby.”

I swallow. “You. I want you, Christian. All of you.”

“I love you,” he whispers, and then he plunges inside of me. My insides clench around him as he sinks fully into me and when my breath hisses through my teeth in an uncontrollable show of my pleasure, he lets out a long, satisfied groan.

“Fuck,” he whispers. “God, I’ve missed this. You feel so fucking incredible, Anastasia.”

“Take me, Christian. Lose yourself in me.”

He shakes his head. “Not yet. I just want to feel you.” I let out a disappointed sound and grind against him, desperately seeking friction, but his hand presses down on my hip and holds me in place. “Wait, baby,” he tells me, looking deeply into my eyes. “Just be here with me for a minute.”

Our eyes stay locked on one another for a long moment, while he’s still fully buried inside of me, until he eventually leans down and presses his lips into mine. Our tongues tangle together, our lips move in perfect synchronization, and as the ferocity of our kiss increases, so does his rhythm inside of me. He starts slow, controlled, and each tantalizing stroke of him moving in and out of me is complete and utter ecstasy. I feel my leg hitch up over his arm through the haze of pleasure taking over my mind, and the new position allows him deeper access. He moves against me in exactly the right place, in exactly the right way with each stroke in and out, over and over again. My fingers twist in his hair as I hold him in this deep and meaningful kiss that is the only thing more potent to me right now than the feel of his hands running over my body. Exploring me. Reclaiming me. Holding me tight, and refusing to let go.

He doesn’t whisper dirty words into my ear or throw me around and slap me hard on the ass. There isn’t the desperate barbarity I expected after six long weeks of drought. The hunger is there, but it’s different. It’s not about the pleasure or the release, it’s about the intimacy and the connection between us, and in this moment and it’s so much better than what I expected. Deeper and more meaningful. It’s the essence of him and of me, and after the absence of physical intimacy between us, it feels as though he’s recommitting himself to me. Each and every movement of him inside of me, of his lips touching my skin, or even his gaze as he stares down at me with complete love adoration feels powerful and momentous, and it sends a wave of overwhelming emotion over me.

Maybe it’s still my hormones trying to negotiate themselves, but I feel tears well in my eyes.

“Ana?” he checks when I reach up to brush the moisture from my lashes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I love you so much, Christian.”

“And I love you. More than anything else in this entire world.” He kisses me again and pushes farther into me, holding himself there for a beat before pulling back and thrusting again. I pull him as tightly against me as I can and try to pour as much of the love as I’m feeling into him as our mouths move together in time with his thrusts. Soon, the heated passion between us morphs into the promising first hint of my approaching orgasm, and as I wrap my legs around him, I pull away just enough so that I can speak.

“Don’t stop. I’m going come.”

“I’m almost there too,” he replies. “Wait for me. Come with me.”

My teeth sink into my bottom lip as his pace increases and drives me closer to the edge. There’s a growing tightness in his lips against mine as he’s pulled closer and closer to his own release, and just before he explodes, his hand moves hard and fast down to the bed next to my head, his fingers grip tightly to the sheets, and his body trembles once more.

“Almost. There,” he pants with each thrust. “Are you there, baby?”

“Yes,” I moan.

“Then come for me. Let me feel you, Ana. Come for me, baby.”

My body reacts to his words as though his command holds physical power over me, and once again, I feel as though my body is being split apart by an orgasm so intense it blurs my vision and radiates all the way from the tips of my fingers down to my toes. I scream in pleasure as I’m ravaged again and again by the force of the pleasure coursing through me, and soon, I hear him cry out my name as he tumbles into the dark pool of reverential hedonism alongside me. I could stay, lost in this moment with him forever, but eventually it comes to an end, and I’m dragged back to earth admist the sounds of our unified heavy breathing. Once clarity comes back, and the final pulse of my orgams dies away, he reaches up to cup the side of my face and stares deeply into my eyes.

“Sometimes, I love you doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to really express the way I truly feel about you, Anastasia.”

“You just did,” I tell him, and as a smile plays at the corner of his mouth, he slowly leans down and kisses me once more.

Next Chapter

Chapter 38

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In my final weeks at Harvard, the thought had crossed my mind that I might be restless post graduation. I didn’t have a Monday through Friday job lined up the way Kate did, or even prospects to continue on in school like Carter. Essentially, I felt as though I’d be floating, bored. But that hasn’t been the case. If anything, I have more to do now that I ever did when I was up late writing papers or studying for exams.

Christian has hired a full time, live in nanny to help me with Calliope during the day while he’s at work, but, in addition to the time it took her get through Taylor’s new screening process, it was weeks before I allowed her anywhere near my daughter. Not just because of the deep seated distrust both Leila’s and Elena’s admissions have given me about any strangers infiltrating our tightly guarded inner circle, but because I simply want to be the one to take care of my daughter. I want to feed her, change her, put her down for her naps, and subsequently check on her every two minutes to make sure she’s still breathing. But since Calliope still won’t breastfeed, the sheer amount of time I spend just pumping in a day has made balancing the impending publish date of my book, being the sole caregiver for my daughter, and making plans for the wedding that Christian, in the wake of Calliope’s birth, now insists must happen sooner rather than later, impossible. In fact, I’m just retrieving the enormous list of guests Christian wants to invite to witness our impending nuptials from the printer when my phone rings and I look down and see Lydia Palermo, the agent I’ve hired to replace Dr. Ralston in representing me while my book is being published, splashed across the screen.

“Hey, Lydia,” I answer, tucking the stack of papers under my arm and hurrying back down the stairs where I’ve left all the other wedding planning materials spread over the coffee table.

“Hi, Ana. I just got off the phone with Random House and they’re willing to push back the soft release until July 19th and the hard release until 26th, but that’s the latest they’ll go, and they’re insistent your book tour will continue on the 26th as planned. They’ve already booked your first nine appearances.”

“And none of that can be pushed back?” I ask. “By even just a few weeks?”

“They’re not even willing to have a discussion about it,” she sighs. “The publicity materials about your signings and readings have already been sent to the printers. They told you they wanted to move fast and you signed a contract.”

“I know, and I want honor that contract, it’s just that Christian has kind of settled on July 30th as our wedding day and…”

“So pick a new date,” she interrupts me. “You’ll only be gone nineteen days.”

“Do you want to tell him that?”

She laughs. “Unfortunately that falls outside of my duties as your literary agent. I do wish you the best of luck though.”

“Mmm. Well, send me the confirmations and itinerary, I guess.  They’ve booked rooms and travel accommodations for Calliope, three security guards, and a nanny, right?”

“I made sure of it.”

“Thanks,” I reply, and then bite my lip as I prepare myself to ask my next question. One of the reasons I was so eager to hire Lydia is that she has clients and contacts through all five major publishing companies and several independent presses scattered throughout the US and the UK, and having her on my team means I can use her connections to my advantage.

“Have…” I hesitate, but force myself to continue. “Have you heard anything about the manuscript I asked you to look out for yet?”

“Nope,” she says, confident in her denial. “And I don’t think you have to worry about it. Harper Collins isn’t going to touch it because of their contract with you, and I’ve spoken to my partners at Hachette, Macmillan, Random House, and Simon and Schuster, anything that pops up will be sent back to you immediately. None of them are interested in fighting your fiancé and the power of Grey Enterprises Holdings through litigation for something that essentially equates to a celebrity tell all written by a woman who is serving time for committing sex crimes. The public outcry over selling her story would be outrageous, definitely not worth the headache. If she does try to sell it though, we’ll put a stop to it. We’re all on your side, Ana. You just worry about your upcoming book tour and getting started on book number two. Once Escape hits the stands, your fans are going to be ravenous for whatever your brilliant mind comes up with next.”

I laugh and roll my eyes. “Will do, and thank you so much for your help, Lydia. Seriously. Both Christian and I really appreciate it.”

“No problem, Ana. Talk to you soon.”

“Bye.”

I hang up the phone and sigh with relief, until I look back down at the guest list again and the information sheets for the two wedding venues in Seattle that had availability for the date Christian wanted, but that are now no longer viable. Finding anything that wasn’t booked for a date six weeks in advance has been extraordinarily difficult. Finding one available sooner than that is going to be impossible. Especially if we’re to find somewhere that can accommodate as many people as Christian apparently wants to invite…

I press my fingers into my temple, trying to relieve the tension headache growing stronger by the second behind my eye, then look up when I hear the elevator ping and watch Luke trudge dejectedly into the great room. His appearance instantly pushes my concerns over the wedding aside. The background checks Taylor has been pulling on essentially everyone we know are starting to trickle in, and day by day, everyone around me has been pulled into his office and questioned about what has been found in their past. Today, it was Luke.

“How’d it go?” I ask as he plops down on the couch next to me.

“Rough,” he replies. “That was worse than when I was hired. Taylor’s been so granular going through every detail of my past to try to find something to connect me to this guy that he had my elementary school report cards in my file. He’s noted every phone call I’ve made in the past two years, gone line by line through my bank records, re-verified every one of my travel plans that I’ve made since Grey hired me, and still, he grilled me so hard that he almost had me questioning whether or not I was behind it all.”

“I know it’s not you,” I assure him. “But, you’re the one who is around me the most and you heard Christian. Every one is a suspect now and you just needed to be eliminated from that list. He’s just being thorough.”

“Well, I’m not a suspect anymore,” he says. “But I can’t say the same for Cardella.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, Taylor found out that her dad has a ton of gambling debt, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars. He thinks it’s motive enough that she could be leaking information about you and Grey.”

“Gambling debt?” I frown as I consider the consequences of this, and as I compare what I know of Cardella with what’s happened over the last few months, I feel my stomach drop. “Oh my god… she was supposed to be here that morning I was almost kidnapped. The rest of the security team went to GEH for that meeting with Taylor, but she was supposed to stay. She said there was a miscommunication, that she thought Kommer was staying, but… she was the last one to leave. She knew I was alone.”

“And she was the last to come back after the hospital called and said you’d been found,” Luke says. “She was also the person who’d brought all your gifts to the arts center for your graduation party, the gifts we found that box he’d left for you in. She was the last one to leave the building, and the one responsible for locking up.”

“So, it’s her. She’s the inside leak.”

He sighs. “She denied it, but obviously she would. We brought her into Grey’s office and our team team questioned her, tried to find any holes in her story, and to get her to reveal something useful, but she didn’t. She said she knew nothing, and that’s what we got out of her. Nothing. So, either she’s telling the truth or this guy who’s coming after you has actually thought of everything, including only hiring people who are excellent liars.”

“He’s been working with Elena, taking advice from her, letting her help plan…” I shake my head. “He’s thought of everything.”

“Grey said the same thing. He fired Cardella this afternoon and gave her employee file and statements from our team to the FBI.”

“FBI?”

“This guy has committed crimes across state lines, this is bigger than just the police now. Not that the police have been any help. An investigation has been started but, since this guy seems to have an insider leaking information, we’re keeping it as quiet as we can to prevent him from being able to evade us.”

“Who knows?”

“Grey. Taylor. Me. And now you.”

“Oh… so, what happened when he fired her? I mean, she didn’t make any threats or anything, did she?”

He shakes his head. “No, but she was upset. Grey was pretty harsh, vicious even, and he did it right in front of everyone. She was shaking when she left his office.”

“Great,” I reply in dismay. “As if we don’t have enough enemies.”

Luke shrugs. “He’s angry and I don’t think he can control it when he feels so desperate to protect you. He’s going to do anything and everything in his power to make sure you’re safe and that we find this guy before anything else happens. That’s the only thing he seems to care about right now and the longer we go without knowing who’s behind it all, the more furious he gets. Well, that and he’s not getting laid. He’s been cranky.”

He smiles at me but as I roll my eyes and push the pointless pile of papers on the table in front of me to the side, he sits up straight and begins scanning the room around us.

“Where’s my kid?”

“Your kid?” I repeat, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, my kid. Adorable little baby, brown hair, gray eyes, about this big… you can’t miss her. She’s the cutest fucking baby you’ve ever seen.”

I laugh. “She’s upstairs with Ava. She’s been fussy all afternoon so she’s trying to put her down for a nap.”

“She’s been fussy because Uncle Luke has been gone. But I’m here now and I’m ready for some baby time.” He jumps off the couch, bounds for the stairs, and I lean over the table, resting my cheek in my hand as I watch him go. The extent to which Calliope has everyone in this house wrapped around her finger is astounding, and yet, I can’t blame any of them. She really is the most perfect thing in existence.

“Ana?” Gail calls, stepping out of the kitchen. “Taylor just called, he and Mr. Grey are on their way home. Should I start dinner?”

“Yes, please. Thank you, Gail.”

She smiles and nods, and as she turns back to the kitchen, Luke begins to descend the stairs with a bundle of blankets in his arms, our new nanny trailing closely behind him.

“Here she is,” he coos as he takes his place on the couch next to me again. “I think she may have gotten bigger in just the couple hours I was at GEH today.” He frowns as he looks down at her angelic, sleeping face. “Stop growing, kid.”

“No, keep growing,” I counter. “She’s still almost a full pound smaller than she should be.”

“But I like her tiny. Look at these hands. Are you telling me you don’t want these hands to stay this size forever?”

“Mmm. Yeah, almost as much as I want her to keep her chubby little legs.”

He laughs and then leans down to kiss her on top of her head, squeezing her tightly against him before taking another long pause just to stare at her. As he reaches down and strokes his finger softly over her cupid’s bow, I push myself up off the floor and slide onto the couch next to them.

“So, what else isn’t Christian telling me. It’s been six weeks and nothing…”

“It takes a long time to review this stuff, Ana. We’re trying to be as thorough as possible.”

“No, I mean, it’s been six weeks and nothing has happened. No more threats, no more attempted kidnappings, no more phone calls. What is he waiting for?”

Luke sighs. “I don’t know. It’s got Taylor on edge too. I’d like to think he’s pulling back because we’re getting close, but in reality, I think he’s just biding his time. Regrouping and looking for an opening. But I won’t let him find one. I haven’t taken my eye off of anything, I promise.”

“You’re sure you’re not spread too thin?”

“No. I can handle it.”

I take a breath, wishing I had full confidence in his assertions, but I know how much he has on his plate. How much the entire security team has on their plate. And without Cardella, that load just got a little heavier for everyone.    

“How are you doing reviewing the security footage you got off the server at the prison?” I ask. “Do we know who’s been to see Elena yet?”

“No,” he sighs. “But I’ve still got 872 hours of footage left to review.”

“I just feel like you should have already seen something. I mean, I wrote a book, I know how long it takes, so he had to have commissioned it in the summer or early fall. And, we know he was in contact with her before she started writing because she was the one who came up with the plan to oust Welch and that happened over Thanksgiving. If Christian is right and the head guard has tampered with the visitors log to erase any proof of this guy meeting with her, then he may have also erased the corresponding security footage. What if he never visited her at all? What if all of this was coordinated through letters or over the phone?”

“Then we’ll find ourselves at a dead end. But until I’ve gone through everything we have, I’m not just going to give up.”

“I’m not suggesting you do. I just want to know what our plan b is.”

“Well, plan b is probably going down to the prison and…” he begins, but his voice cuts off when the elevator doors open again and Christian and Taylor step into the foyer. Because it’s Christian, Kommer, who’d stayed behind with me while Luke was being interviewed at GEH this afternoon, steps out of the security office and waits to be dismissed so he can take his turn at being interrogated by Taylor.

“Where is she?” Christian asks, and Kommer nods in our direction.

“In the living room, sir.”

“Good. I’ll leave you to it then.” Both Kommer and Taylor nod and disappear back into the security office while Christian turns to lock down the elevator with the new external security system that’s been installed and then steps into the great room, but as he approaches the couch where Luke and I are sitting, his eyes aren’t searching for me.

“There she is,” he says, groaning slightly as he reaches down and lifts Calliope out of Luke’s arms and into his own. Once he no longer has a hold of her, Luke turns to me and scrunches his face together in a look of disappointment, but as I laugh, he claps his hand over my knee, perhaps a little too hard, and heaves himself off the couch.

“Stop distracting me, Ana,” he says. “I have work to be doing.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes, but smile after him as he quickly moves out of the great room and ducks into the security office to join Taylor and Kommer. When I turn back to Christian and see the now customary look of pure adoration he gives her as he sways back and forth, rocking her gently in his arms, my smile widens. The longer I stare though, the less my fascination is focused on his love for our daughter, and more on simply him.

“What?” he asks, looking down at me while I subtly bite down on my bottom lip.

I shake my head. “Nothing. Just you.” My eyes rake over him again, drinking him in, and my breath hisses between my teeth. “You know maybe you should change before you come home from work. You standing there, looking like you do in that suit… it’s not really fair.”

“Don’t talk to me about fair. I watched you folding laundry yesterday in nothing but one of my t-shirts and a thong. Do you have any idea what bouncing on the exercise ball with Calliope all day, every day, has done to your ass? Good things, Ana. Very good things.”

His eyes darken as they shift down to my bare legs, curled beneath me on the couch, and I feel all of the muscles inside of me clench. Unfortunately though, I still have five days before our six week celibacy constraint comes to an end, so I quickly change the subject.

“How was your day? Is the new building everything you hoped it would be?”

“Yeah, it’s been great actually. The integrated technology interfaces have really changed our productivity. Meetings are easier, my communication with Ros has vastly improved, our servers are running faster, and it finally feels like we’ve visually caught up to the success we’ve had. Elliot did a great job, except I wish he’d had the foresight to put a daycare in my office.”

“You think I’d let you take my baby out of this apartment to be around a bunch of germy little kids all day?”

“A bunch of kids? No, I meant in my office. Next to my desk. Basically I’m telling you that I’m going to buy a pack n’ play and start taking her to work with me.”

“I don’t think so,” I laugh. “You’ll have to fight me for her.”

“In a few days, I’d be more than happy to subdue you until you agree to my terms.” He smirks and raises his eyebrows at me suggestively, and while I giggle at his not so subtle promise, Mrs. Jones steps out of the kitchen again and begins laying dinner out on the dining room table. Christian reaches down for my hand and helps me to my feet, then regretfully relinquishes Calliope to Ava.

“Again?” he asks, once we’ve settled down at the table and I pass him the bowl of Chicken Caesar salad. “What, did Gail forget how to use the oven while we were in Cambridge?”

“That’s my fault. I have a wedding dress to fit into and despite hardly eating anything in the hospital for 10 days and doing about a billion squats over the past few weeks whenever I have to try and calm Calliope down, I still have nine pounds to lose before I’m back to my pre-pregnancy size.”

“I wish you wouldn’t worry about that. I think you look just as good as the day I met you.”

“That’s because I am the same size I was when you met me. But I didn’t work my butt off on a treadmill for 2 ½ years to be that size on my wedding day. The internet says my uterus should be back to it’s normal size by now, there’s no excuse for… all of this.” I wave my hands over my body where I feel as though I’m carrying extra weight, and Christian frowns.

“I think you’re beautiful.”

“And I appreciate that. But I want to feel beautiful.” I reach out for the glass of ice water next to my placesetting, but stop when Christian gets out of his chair and comes around the table towards me. His hand moves into my hair and, slowly, he pulls me into him until his lips press against mine. The soft moan he lets out as I kiss him back sends shivers down my back and when his tongue tangles with mine the tension the stress of the day has left in my body immediately melts away and there is no longer a wedding to plan, a book to publish, a crazy psycho on the loose, or even dinner on the table in front of me. There is only Christian. This beautiful, sexy man, who I want with every fiber of my being.

“How do you feel now?” he asks when he pulls away.

“Aroused.”

He laughs at my flat, sardonic tone and then adjusts himself through his trousers as he straightens his back and glances down at me with lust burning in his eyes. “Right back at you, baby. More so than you know.”

“I think I have a pretty good idea.” I bite down on my lip, and his eyes narrow before he lets out a long, disappointed sigh and takes his seat again. We eat for a moment in charged silence, until I finally say something to take our minds off what we both want, but can’t have.

“So, what do you want to do on Saturday?”

He raises an eyebrow and gives me sly smile. “You want a play by play of everything I’ve been fantasizing about over the last six weeks?”

“Not that part of Saturday. Your mother called me this morning, she wanted to know what you want to do for your birthday.”

“My birthday?”

“Yes, Saturday is also your birthday.”

“Really?” He takes his phone out of his pocket and flips through the apps, presumably for his calendar, and then lets out a surprised, huh, before leaning back in his chair and eventually smiling. “I guess that really changes what I’m allowed to ask for…”

I shake my head, but don’t bother hiding my smile. “I’m looking more for family oriented requests. You know, activities your parents and little sister can be present for.”

He frowns. “I don’t really want to make a big deal out of it. We have more important things to worry about right now.”

“I disagree. I think we need normalcy and things to celebrate now more than ever. This year’s been tough, but it’s also been really great and we keep forgetting that. We’re engaged, we’ve had a baby, we’re only a few weeks away from moving into the house that’s going to be our daughter’s family home… there’s so much I’m grateful for and all of that is because of you. I want to celebrate you, Christian. We all do.”

He takes a deep breath, considering the sincerity of my words for a moment, and then nods. “Okay. We’ll take the yacht out for the weekend and bring the whole family along. We’ll all be together and we won’t need as much security so Taylor can stay behind to continue his investigation.”

“How’s that going? I heard you fired Cardella today.”

“Mmm,” he hums, confirming but not elaborating.

“Do you really think she’s the inside leak?” I press him.

“I don’t know, but I have more reason to believe she is than she isn’t. She didn’t give us any useful information to help us find this fuck though, so it all feels like a wash in the end.”

“Not if she was giving him inside information. I want us to find out who he is and I want for him to be out of our lives for good, but until we can make that happen, the most important thing is keeping Calliope safe. And we do that by circling the wagons and keeping him from seeing our hand.”

“I know,” Christian nods. “And we don’t need Cardella to find him. He’s going to slip up, and I’ll be there when he does. He can’t hide from me forever, and once I find him, I will make sure he never comes near you or Calliope ever again.”

“I know you will,” I assure him, and as he nods, I lean over the table to kiss him once more.

“So, how was your day?” Christian asks, picking up his fork to eat again. “Did you pick a venue?”

“Actually… I need to talk to you about that.”

“Oh?”

“Lydia called me this afternoon. Random House won’t postpone my book tour. I’m going to be travelling from July 26th to August 15th. We can’t get married on the 30th.”

His chewing slows as he stares at me, but when I don’t say anything else, he swallows, takes a breath, and then nods.

“Okay, so we move the date up one weekend.”

“Or… postpone it…”

“Postpone it? You mean, until you get back?”

“Or, maybe, until next summer…”

“Next summer!”

“I just feel like we’re rushing this so much that we’ve had to compromise on everything and this wedding doesn’t even look the way I’d dreamed it would anymore.”

“Okay,” he says, his voice controlled and patient, telling me he’s about to shift into negotiation mode. “What do you want to change?”

“Well, for starters I don’t want to get married in just some random hotel or skyscraper in the middle of the city. There’s nothing about either of those places that makes me feel a connection to you or reminds me of the wonderful parts of our life that we’ve shared together. I’d love to get married in Paris or Vermont, or… by the ocean. Don’t you remember standing on that beach in Hawaii and how beautiful it was when the sun went down over the water? The way it felt standing there together, like we had our whole future ahead of us and it was bright and exciting? That’s what I want for our wedding, not just whatever place is available.”

“Okay, then let’s try the yacht club. It’s on the sound and we can get married at sunset.”

“I did. They’re booked through the end of the summer and have already started taking reservations for next spring. There’s no where on the water that isn’t booked solid until next year.”

“I’ll try. I’m sure someone would be willing to give up their reservation for the right price, and if that’s what you want, I’ll pay whatever it takes.”

“And what are you going to do about the guests? That list you sent me has almost 350 names on it.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“But… why? I looked at that list and I don’t even know like 80% of those people. I mean…” I get up and hurry back to the coffee table in the great room where I’ve left the guest list Christian sent me that afternoon and begin flipping through it as I return to him. “Okay, who is Lois Greenman?”

He sits back in his chair and folds his arms. “City councilwoman. She’s the head of the committee that approves land grants and zoning initiatives for the city of Seattle. Her approval means that I may be able to expand my shipping yard in the next fiscal year, which is key to the sustainability of my manufacturing division. Her approval will be much easier to get if she feels as though we have a personal relationship and I’ve worked extremely hard to cultivate that relationship at all of those galas and charity events that you hate being dragged to.”

I purse my lips together. “Fine. As much as I’m not crazy about the idea of you using our wedding to broker a business deal, fine. But what about… Astor Harrington?”

He shrugs. “Some people just need to know that you are officially and forever will be mine.”

I narrow my eyes at him and then, very purposefully, reach down and cross Astor’s name off the list. Christian doesn’t flinch, so I look down at the pages in front of me to find more names to remove, but looking through line after line of unfamiliar names just seems to overwhelm me again and I have to stop. I rest my face in my hands and as I take a deep, calming breath, I hear Christian sigh.

“Ana, are you… are you getting cold feet?”

My eyes snap up to him immediately. “Of course not. This has nothing to do with marrying you, Christian, this just isn’t how I dreamed our wedding would be. I was picturing something intimate and beautiful, with all of our friends and family watching as we pledge our love to one another. That when we take our vows, we’re doing it because it’s right and we’re ready, not because we’re being scared into it by some faceless psycho who’s hanging over our lives like the specter of death.”

Christian leans forward to rest his elbows on the table and begins scrubbing his hands over his face, but he doesn’t say anything.

“You’re mad…” I say softly.

“No.” He shakes his head. “I’m just trying to understand what you’re feeling because… what you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me. Yes, we’re both under a lot of stress, and yes, I’d ideally like our wedding to happen without the weight of what we’re facing hovering over us, and maybe we’ve made these plans very quickly, but I don’t feel like we’re rushing into this. If anything, I feel like I’ve been waiting an eternity for this day to finally come and… I don’t want to wait anymore. Maybe I’ve tried to make this bigger than you wanted, or grander, and maybe I am going overboard, but… I love you, more than anything, and I just want this day to be as big and momentous as it feels to me. If you don’t want the big guest list, we won’t have it. If you don’t want the expensive venue and grand ballrooms for the reception, consider them gone. We can get married right on the lake in my parents back yard, or on the yacht, or we can put everyone on my plane and fly to that same beach in Hawaii and get married at sunset. I don’t care. At the end of the day, all I want is to finally be married to you, and I can’t wait another year for that to happen, Ana.”

I lean my cheek on my hand as I listen to what he says and then nod. It’s a compromise. He’s conceding what I don’t want in exchange for what he needs. It’s fair and while I would prefer to postpone our wedding until we’ve resolved this horrific nightmare with whoever is after us, maybe the lesson that the universe tried to teach me with the almost kidnapping and Calliope’s birth is that I need to stop taking time for granted. There are no promised tomorrows, or next years. Life isn’t a guarantee and so you have to take what you want while you can. Right now, I want Christian. I want to be his, and for him to be mine, until death do us part.  

“Okay, we won’t wait,” I tell him. “We’ll talk to your parents about having the wedding at their house while we’re out on the yacht this weekend and we’ll get married on the 23rd before I leave.”

“Good.” He nods, and as he talks a breath of relief, I get out of my chair, move to him, and straddle his lap.

“We don’t need the expensive venus and the grand ballrooms for our wedding to feel momentous. It already will be, because that’s the way I love you. You are the center of my universe, Christian Grey, and whether we get married next month or next year, nothing will change that. I will love you with everything I have inside of me until my very last day.”

“Forever.”

“And ever, and ever, and ever…” I continue, until eventually, he cuts off my words with a kiss.

 

****

 

Leaving for the marina Friday morning is chaos. When Christian handed Calliope off to me in the morning before he left for work, she immediately melted down into a fit of tears that nothing seems to be able to stop.

“You’re certain she’s not wet or something?” Luke asks as I fight to get her fastened into her carseat in the back of the SUV.

“No, she’s not wet, she’s not hungry, she doesn’t want to sleep… she just wants to cry.” I snap, my frustration coming out more than I mean for it to.

“Here, try a pacifier,” my dad suggests, passing it to me, but when I lean over her seat and brush the tip of the nipple against her bottom lip she doesn’t even attempt to suckle.

“Please, Calliope,” I beg over the sound of her screaming.

“Harrison just texted me,” Luke interrupts. “Kate just got to the marina with the rest of the Greys. They’re waiting on us.”

“Okay.” I sigh and try to take a moment to compose myself before I crawl into the seat next to her, but her shrill scream is like a hammer chipping away at my heart.

“You always slept in the car,” my dad assures me as Luke begins pulling out of the garage beneath Escala. “Anytime you got into fits like this, your mom and I would put you in the car and drive you around until you fell asleep. It worked every time.”

“Well, I hope she takes after me then.” I lean over her seat and make soft clicking sounds with my tongue as I twister her tiny fingers around my index finger. “Please, take after me…”

She doesn’t. The entire time we fight the traffic of downtown Seattle on our way to the marina, she screams and screams with as much force as her little lungs can muster.

“Oh dear, Calliope,” Grace says while I finally step out of the car on the loading dock next to the yacht and she reaches inside to pull my crying baby from her car seat. “What’s the matter, angel?”

“Her dad left and he’s the only one she loves,” I say dejectedly.

“Oh, do you miss your daddy?” Grace continues. “It’s okay, my sweet little baby, he’s going to be here tonight. Oh…” She pulls her more tightly into her chest but it does nothing to comfort her. If anything, it makes her scream louder.

“She is just not having it today,” Kate says. She reaches out to take her from Grace and gently bounces her in her arms, but nothing.

“I think they’re done with the security checks,” Elliot says, walking up behind Kate. He nods over his shoulder at Ryan, Kommer, and a few crew members coming up from below decks, but frowns as Calliope’s incessant tantrum catches his attention. “What did you do to her, Kate?”

“Nothing, she’s just a little cranky this morning. That’s all.”

“Give her to me,” Elliot says. Kate turns to place her in his arms and, like magic, the moment she’s nestled in and her eyes lock with Elliot’s, the giant, alligator tears rolling over her cheeks and the high piercing screams she emits, stop. She falls completely silent and simply gazes up at her uncle with a look close to wonder.

“There, see?” Elliot says proudly.

“Oh my god, you’re a miracle worker,” I tell him gratefully, and he smiles.

“Elliot Grey, baby whisperer.” He turns to Kate. “Sorry, she loves me more.”

Kate narrows her eyes. “I’ll cut you.”

“Okay, okay,” Grace says, moving up the dock and glancing longingly at her son as though she’s desperate to take my baby from him. “Let’s get going. Your father and sister are already aboard and those jet skis aren’t going to ride themselves.”

I stifle a laugh as I remember Christian’s idle threat to have the jetskis removed from the yacht after Elliot’s seventh phone call last week reminding him to have them serviced before we disembarked, and then hook my arm through Kate’s as we follow Grace and my father aboard the yacht.

It’s nice when we set sail. I don’t want Calliope out under the sun or being wind beaten and battered while we carve our way through the deep blue water towards the Strait of Juan Del Fuca, so we open the all the doors and windows to let in the cool sea air and settle down in the sitting room to visit with one another. Elliot keeps Calliope calm and quiet, swaddled in his arms, until we’re far enough off the coast that we can cut the engines and drift while my dad and Carrick throw fishing lines off the top deck and Mia, Kate, and Elliot pull out the jetskis.

“I’ll stay with her,” Grace offers when she sees me laying Calliope in her bassinet after I’ve finally rocked her to sleep. “You should go out on the jet skis too. Have some fun.”

“Oh, actually I was kind of looking forward to the peace and quiet,” I tell her. “I’ve started writing again and… I actually really like what I’ve got so far. I’ve been excited to work on it, and I don’t get a lot of time back home.”

“Another book?”

“Maybe. I don’t know… This has been a much different experience. Last time, I needed to put my thoughts and feelings on paper to work through them. This time, I just… I want Christian to know.”

“Know what?”

“The way I love him. The way he’s changed me. The way he’s made me see the entire world differently. Better. That despite everything we’ve been through, I’ve never felt closer to heaven than when I was fighting through hell with him. I don’t feel the way about him, even about what happened, as I did when I wrote Escaping Neverland. I don’t want that to be the legacy I leave behind of our love. So I’m starting over.”

“A love story.” She smiles. “I can’t wait to read it.”

“We’ll see.” I laugh, and as she nods and squeezes my shoulder, she turns to face the bassinet that contains my sleeping daughter.

“Well, what if I take Calliope in the other room to read with me? I’ll keep an eye on her while you take the afternoon to write.”

“Really? That’d be great actually. I’ll just go into the office in mine and Christian’s room. Just bring her to me when you need a break.”

“Never,” she says. I let out a soft, disbelieving laugh as I remember Calliope’s tantrum from this morning and then peel myself off the couch, kiss her gently on the forehead, and thank Grace again before disappearing back into the office inside the main cabin.

Just the way we did in the sitting room, I open all the windows and allow the salty sea air fill the room before I settle down at Christian’s desk with my laptop and begin reading through the last few pages of what I’ve already written and picking up again where I’d left off. It’s difficult to concentrate at first, the sounds of the jet skis’ motors and Kate’s and Mia’s laughter are almost a little too enticing, but I know how rare this opportunity to just sit down for an indeterminate amount of time to write now that I have my baby home with me, so I want to take full advantage of it while I can. With every ounce of self control I possess, I focus all of my attention on the blank page I have in front of me and begin to type, and while the words don’t come as readily as I wish they would, they do come, and I’m actually able to get an amount done that I’m proud of before there’s a knock on my door and Luke pokes his head inside the office.

“Ana?”

“Yeah?”

“Mr. Grey is on the phone for you.”

I glance down and see the satellite phone in his hand and frown. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah, he and I had a long conversation, shared our hopes and dreams, and talked all about our feelings before he asked me to speak to you, so I know exactly what this phone call is about.”

I roll my eyes. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”

He laughs as he tosses me the phone, but I wait until the door closes behind him before I answer. “Hey, baby. Are you on your way?”

“No, that’s why I’m calling. Taylor may have found something in Leila’s financial records, a paper trail. Her tuition, her apartment, her living expenses were all being paid out of an offshore account owned by a company called Limited LTD, based in Panama.”

“Panama? Wait, I thought this guy was in Seattle?”

“He is. It’s a shell corporation.”

“I don’t know what that is…”

He sighs. “It’s a company that exists only on paper. Wealthy people use them to hide assets for tax evasion purposes. You can transfer money or property through the shell company into an offshore account because the ownership of the company is tied up in a blind trust so the wealth can’t be traced back to the legitimate owner. It’s a good way to make millions of dollars in revenue look like millions of dollars of loss, or to pay people without the government being able to track it.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Because I have three myself, in Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Monaco.”

I bite my tongue to prevent myself from veering off subject at Christian’s casual admission to tax evasion, and try to sort through the things I understand of what he’s told me.

“So what does this mean? If it’s in a blind trust and we can’t trace the owner of the account, how can we use this to find out who he is?”

“We can’t. But with some help from Welch, we may be able to find out who else he’s paying to work for him and when we do, hopefully one of them can lead us to him.”

“Good,” I say, immediately feeling a tangible sense of relief as for the first time since we knew what was coming for us, it actually feels like we’ve chipped away at the perfect defense he’s put in place to shield his identity from us. “So… are you not coming, then?”

“No, I’ll be there. Just late. Welch is running code now to try and break through the securities on the account so we can trace the payments, and once he does, it’ll take him a few days to sort through the data. I just don’t want to leave until I at least know we have an access point.”

“Okay. Then I’ll see you tonight.”

“I love you, Anastasia.”

“I love you too. Bye.” I hang up the phone and glance down at the screen of my laptop in front of me again, but I don’t think I can write anymore. Now that I know Christian is making some progress at finding out who’s been after us, my concentration is shot. I don’t, however, want to sit here driving myself crazy all afternoon running through a hundred implausible scenarios of what he’s going to find, so I tidy up the desk I’ve been working at and head out to rejoin the rest of the family.

Carrick and my dad have had a great afternoon and their catches have been passed off to Christian’s chef to prepare for dinner, so I find them in the sitting room with Grace. Calliope is laid out over her favorite blanket on floor while my dad dangles a soft lamb plush toy over her, which she watches with absolute fascination.

“How has she been?” I ask, sitting next to Grace on the sofa.

“Wonderful,” she beams at me. “After I fed her, we read a little bit and then grandpa came inside to change her.”

“You’re on diaper duty, dad?” I ask with a laugh.

“I’d change a million diapers for this little girl.” He reaches down to brush the tip of his finger over her full lips but she doesn’t look away from the toy my father still holds over the top of her until she sneezes and while we all melt over the adorable sound, her face crinkles in indignation. As though she’s angry the sneeze has broken her concentration.

“Oh my god, she’s so freaking cute. She’s going to be the death of me,” I beam, and then quickly slide from the couch to the floor to play with her and my father. We lie there with her, fully engrossed in peek-a-boo and the little piggies game for much longer than should be acceptable for a room full of grown adults, until Kate, Elliot, and Mia come in looking for dinner.

“I’m just going to go change,” Kate says through chattering teeth. “I’m freezing.”

“Of course you are,” Elliot replies. “You’re soaking wet. Why did you wear a tank top under your life jacket?”

“Because… I don’t like the way the zipper feels against my skin when I’m wet.”

“You never cared before.”

“Well, I do now.” Her tone is defensive and it takes Elliot off guard. He furrows his brow at her as she turns and hurries through the exit that leads to the main cabins and then turns a questioning look on me, but I quickly glance away because I know exactly why Kate is wearing a tank top under her lifejacket, but clearly, she’s not ready for everyone else to know.

“Mom, when are we going to eat?” Mia asks.

“We’re waiting for Christian, sweetie.”

“Oh…” I interject. “I’m sorry, he called me a little while ago and he’s going to be late. We should start without him.”

“Late? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, Taylor thinks he’s found a way to find out who’s behind all of this.”

“What?” Elliot exclaims. “Are they going after him? We should go back…”

“No, it’s not like that. They found his bank account or something and it’s all anonymous so it doesn’t tell us much but they’re hoping Welch can use it to find out who else he’s paying so we can use one of them to find out who he is.”

“Sounds like a good way to end up with more bodies…” my dad says darkly, but Elliot shakes his head.

“I honestly don’t care. These people have hurt my family and have threatened to do worse… I don’t care what happens to any of them. No matter what role they’re playing, they’re helping him, and they deserve whatever they get.”

“Elliot,” Grace says, admonishing him, but he doesn’t back down.

“Why would would you feel remorse for them after what they’ve put Ana and Christian through? After the horrible things he’s done to his own people, what do you think he has saved for Ana? For Calliope? And what if he doesn’t stop there? What if Mia is next? Or Kate? Christian has this right. We need to find this guy and stop him. By whatever means necessary.” He looks over at Luke purposefully and Luke’s subtle return nod doesn’t go unnoticed by me.

“What do you mean by whatever means necessary?” I ask. “What has Christian said?”

Neither of them answer and before I can press them, the head of the yacht staff appears in the entryway and announces dinner.

“Wonderful,” Grace says, clearly glad for the subject change. She jumps to her feet and quickly begins ushering Mia towards the dining room downstairs while my dad scoop Calliope into his arms and walks with Carrick, discussing fishing plans for the next day and where he thinks they should cast out. I remain in place, glancing uneasily between Luke and Elliot, but neither of them says anything. Elliot simply turns to follow the rest of his family and Luke comes to me, holding out his hand to help me off the floor.

“What has Christian told you to do?” I ask him, and he frowns.

“Don’t worry about it, Ana.”

“No, don’t shut me out like that, Luke. I deserve to know.”

He sighs. “You’ve said the words, Ana. He told us to stop him by any means necessary. It’s up to Taylor and I to decide what that is.”

I bite my bottom lip as he tries to turn me and lead me to the dining room with the others, but before we’re fully out of the sitting room, I stop him.

“Just… don’t do anything illegal, okay?”

“Illegal? You think what Taylor and Welch are doing right now is legal? You don’t have a problem with that.”

“No one is going to get hurt, Luke…”

“Plenty of people are going to get hurt, Ana. That’s the kind of monster we’re dealing with now. Our job is simply to make sure that you and everyone you love aren’t one of those people. That’s what I care about, that’s what your fiancé cares about, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

I hesitate, not knowing what to say. Reading between the lines, I have a good idea of what that means and the thought of it not only makes me extremely uncomfortable, it almost makes me sick. What we’re willing to do, and what we’re not willing to do is what should separate us from what he is. But I’m a soldier’s daughter. I understand that sometimes peace comes at a cost and when it comes right down to it, if it were someone I loved, I don’t know how far I’d be willing to go to keep them from being harmed. I just hope I never have to find out.

 

There’s a much more welcome sense of levity to dinner. Grace especially seems eager to direct the conversation in ways that can’t turn back to what Christian is currently dealing with and both Carrick and my father are happy to help her. We’re all just discussing plans to attend a fourth of July parade in Montesano that is honoring my father’s service, when Kate finally returns, and when I look up at her, even my mouth pops open.

She’s gotten some sun out on the water today, which not only means that her skin is glowing, but that her champagne colored hair looks a shade or two lighter and it’s tumbling softly over her shoulder in beachy waves. The long, white, billowy halter dress she’s changed into looks fantastic contrasted against the caramel tint to her skin and she’s put on just enough makeup to look fresh and natural, but also unattainably beautiful.

“Kate,” Elliot says, jumping out of his seat so quickly that it falls backwards and clunks noisily against the hardwood floor. “You look… stunning.”

“Thank you, Elliot,” she smiles radiantly, and as she moves to take her place at the table next to Mia, she glances over and winks at me. Elliot moves around the table and pulls her chair out for her and then stares down at Mia for a moment, almost as though he’s going to ask her to move, but thinks better of it and returns to his own seat.

“So, did you kids have a good time out on the water this afternoon?” Carrick asks.

“Yeah, it was a little flat,” Mia says. “But it was fun.”

“Flat?” Kate asks. “You got like a three foot swell. I thought for sure you were going in the water. I’d already turned around to come rescue you, thinking we were going to have to tow you back to the yacht for first aid, and then you just spun out and went off.”

“Kids play,” she says, waving off Kate’s concern with her hand. “I wanna go ride somewhere where the water is less stagnant. Like Chile, I hear they have swells there that can get up to 25 feet tall. Could you imagine riding through a wave tunnel like that? So awesome.”

“My sister,” Elliot says, sniffing and pretending to wipe away a very proud tear.

“That all sounds very exciting until the wave collapses on you and you’re stranded, tumbling around underwater in the middle of the ocean with that heavy machine on top of you,” Grace says. “Then what would you do?”

“That’s not going to happen, Mom.”

“Mhmm, I don’t think so.”

“You’ll be eighteen soon,” Elliot says with a smile. “Then I can take you.”

“Over Christian’s dead body,” I say with a laugh.

“He’ll probably be right there with us,” Mia says. “I know that when we go on vacation now that you two hole up or are happy to make out on the beach all day but before you came along, Christian was always up for anything. Skiing, surfing, parasailing, jet skiing… he did it all. He and I used to spend days just going up and down Hyde Park when we would go to Aspen.”

“Ah, my favorite run,” I say, rolling the shoulder I’d dislocated going down that very ski run three years ago and listening to the sickening popping sound it still makes.

“Looks like you’re really holding Christian back, Ana,” Kate says with a laugh. “I didn’t realize he used to be interesting.”

“We just need to get him back on the horse,” Elliot says. “It’s so damn difficult getting him to leave work unless Ana is literally in danger. He needs to learn how to vacation again.”

“Oh, he’ll come around now that Calliope’s arrived.”

“Especially once we get her her first set of skis,” Elliot says gleefully. “Can you imagine the look on his face the first time we take her on a run? He’ll literally have a heart attack.” He laughs, but I shake my head.

“You’ll never get to know because there’s no way Christian would ever allow it. That little girl is going to be the most overprotected child in America.”

“Which is why she has godparents,” Kate says, smiling mischievously at Elliot. “By this time next year, she’ll be out on the jet skis with us.”

“No she won’t,” he says. “We won’t be here.”

“And where will you be?” Carrick asks.

“Kayaking the inside passage,” Kate says. “It’s a five week trip from Seattle to Skagway. Elliot’s always wanted to do it. He was telling me about it on the phone the other night and he reeled me right in. We’re already planning.”

“Really?” I ask suspiciously, and she nods, but not with the implication in her expression that would tell me making plans together is anything more than two friends sharing their love of a common hobby together, and as they explain the trip more to Grace, Carrick, and my father, the more that seems to be solidified. Even when Carrick asks where they plan to sleep along the 1,500 mile journey, they explain there is plenty of storage space in the kayak for individual sized tents and sleeping bags, and not once do they crack a guilty smile or exchange secretive glances across the table. Still, I know how Kate feels about Elliot, and how Elliot feels about Kate. They’re playing it cool but if they’re having late night phone conversations and Kate’s making an effort to look the way she does for a family dinner, there might be something more going on. I don’t know why she’d hide that from me, but now, I have to find out.

“Well, sounds like a fun trip,” Carrick says. “I’ll look forward to hearing all about it.”

“Me too,” I say suspiciously, before narrowing my eyes on Kate. “Me. Too.”

After dinner we head back into the sitting room and since we haven’t heard from Christian yet, we decide to spend the evening playing some of the board games Grace brought along just in case there was a freak storm that mean we’d be stuck inside. Based on my history with Christian and what he’s told me about playing games with Elliot growing up, I pass on Monopoly and we all settle for Clue. But instead of paying attention to Colonel Mustard’s activities in the Conservatory, I try and solve the mystery of what’s going on between Elliot and Kate. They’re competitive during the game, though that’s just in their nature, but aren’t any pet names exchanged among the pointed, taunting barbs they throw at one another, and never once do I catch them locking eyes when the attention is focused elsewhere around the table. When I finally get up to put Calliope to bed though, I do notice that his hand is on her knee under the table, and his thumb moves in soft, slow circles over the fabric of her dress.

“Good night, sweet baby,” Grace coos as I reach in her arms to take my daughter. She kisses her softly on the head, and after I’ve taken her around the table and said goodnight to everyone still seated there, I head off through the open room to the stairs that lead up to the main cabin, alone.

Calliope is a little fussy as I set her down, but she falls asleep fairly quickly. I think briefly of waiting up for Christian, maybe even writing to pass the time, but I have no idea when he’s actually going to arrive and it’s already late enough that my eyelids feel heavy. With a sigh, I gently stroke the soft hair on top of my daughter’s head one last time and then crawl into the cool, crisp bedding. The waves lapping against the side of the yacht are calming, the perfect background noise to lull me off into restful sleep, but it simply won’t come. My mind is no longer occupied with what may or may not be going on between Kate and Elliot, nor with the plot holes in my new story I haven’t worked out yet, or the not so idle threats Calliope’s godparents have made about turning her into the next Evel Knievel before she’s even out of diapers. Instead, I find myself lying there in the darkness, trying to keep absolutely quiet as I listen desperately for the whir of helicopter blades through the open windows.

Today has been a wonderful respite from the stress of everything going on back home and the noise and chaos of the city, but it’s been lonely too. I’ve enjoyed having time to write but I would have rather spent that time with Christian fishing with our fathers or maybe even out on the jet skis with Kate and his siblings. This weekend is supposed to be about him and so far, he is the only part that’s missing.

As I lie there, trying not to think about the actual reasons he isn’t here, I finally do begin to drift, but I’m not able to lose myself in dreams before I’m awakened abruptly by the screeching metallic sound of the Charlie Tango’s landing gear touching down on the helipad just above me. I glance nervously over at Calliope, praying the sound hasn’t woken her too, but she sleeps soundly through the noise of the helicopter powering down and the voices that drift down through the window as Christian is welcomed by the night staff.

Excited anticipation takes grip of my stomach while I wait for his appearance and the moment he comes through the bedroom door, the tense exhaustion on his face immediately melts away in favor of delighted relief. He closes the door behind him and begins stripping out of his clothes as he stalks towards the bed and climbs over the top of me.

“Hi,” I tell him as he covers my body with his.

“Hi. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay. Did Welch get what he needed?”

“Mhm. He’s downloading the data file over night and he and Taylor will begin pouring through it tomorrow. I almost wish I’d left Sawyer behind. He’s good at this kind of thing.”

I hum in agreement and Christian leans down to take my lips with his. I feel my entire body relax as he kisses me, the warmth of his affection chasing away the loneliness that’s kept me awake half the night. Everything’s perfect now, exactly how it should be, and I can feel that contentedness with each brush of his lips against mine. Finally, our restful weekend away can really begin.

“It’s after midnight, you know,” Christian says as he pulls away. “It’s my birthday.”

“Happy Birthday,” I whisper. He smiles and shakes his head.

“No, that’s not really what I meant. It’s June 18th, officially six weeks from Calliope’s birth.”

“Oh…”

He smiles again before reclaiming my lips, but just as the tenacity of his tongue against mine begins to spark the welcome heat between my legs and his hand starts to creep beneath the t-shirt I fell asleep in, Calliope wakes and begins to cry.

And she doesn’t stop until the pink light of dawn creeps through our bedroom windows.  

Next Chapter

Chapter 38 Preview

Excerpt from dinner between Christian and Ana:

 

“So, what do you want to do on Saturday?”

He raises an eyebrow and gives me sly smile. “You want a play by play of everything I’ve been fantasizing about over the last six weeks?”

“Not that part of Saturday. Your mother called me this morning, she wanted to know what you want to do for your birthday.”

“My birthday?”

“Yes, Saturday is also your birthday.”

“Really?” He takes his phone out of his pocket and flips through the apps, presumably for his calendar, and then lets out a surprised, huh, before leaning back in his chair and eventually smiling. “I guess that really changes what I’m allowed to ask for…”

I shake my head, but don’t bother hiding my smile. “I’m looking more for family oriented requests. You know, activities your parents and little sister can be present for.”

He frowns. “I don’t really want to make a big deal out of it. We have more important things to worry about right now.”

“I disagree. I think we need normalcy and things to celebrate now more than ever. This year’s been tough, but it’s also been really great and we keep forgetting that. We’re engaged, we’ve had a baby, we’re only a few weeks away from moving into the house that’s going to be our daughter’s family home… there’s so much I’m grateful for and all of that is because of you. I want to celebrate you, Christian. We all do.”

He takes a deep breath, considering the sincerity of my words for a moment, and then nods. “Okay. We’ll take the yacht out for the weekend and bring the whole family along. We’ll all be together and we won’t need as much security so Taylor can stay behind to continue his investigation.”

 

See you Monday!

xoxo WishingMrGreyWasHere

Announcing….

blood rose 2

Summary

Raymond Steele Sr. wasn’t like the tech tycoons that made up the majority of Seattle’s wealthy businessmen. His fortune wasn’t made from the mattresses he sold all over town and his power didn’t come from the size of his empire. Raymond Steele’s influence was built on blood and loyalty. That loyalty made everyone in his closely guarded circle family, even if they didn’t want to be, and family doesn’t turn on one another, nor does it disintegrate when the figure head dies. Family is forever. This is Christian Grey’s conundrum. He has spent his entire life paying for the sins of his father, Raymond Steele Jr.’s right hand man, and his ties to the family have threatened his career, his relationships, his freedom, and his life. But as he begins to unravel the secrets of the Steele legacy and attempts to escape the reign of Seattle’s most notorious crime syndicate once and for all, he learns that there’s only one way to leave the family. Seize power, or die trying.

Unfortunately for Christian, he’s not the only player who wants to change the game.

 

Things you should know:

  1. This story is OOC (Out of Character) and AU (Alternate Universe) which means there are changes to the backstories and personalities of some of the characters. You’ll have a better time if you drop some your preconceived notions about these characters going in. Their motivations are different, and, for a lot of them, their roles and qualities are very different. Clean slate.
  2. If I could categorize this story by Genre the way you do on FanFiction, I would choose Romance/Drama/Crime/Suspense
  3. This story will be rated M for explicit sexual content, graphic violence, strong language, and intense situations.
  4. This story will be poly-protagonist, meaning multiple POVs throughout the whole story.
  5. You should expect other/different romantic pairings in this story, for multiple characters.
  6. There is no BDSM or sexual history with Elena Lincoln in this story, Christian’s background is completely different. He’s not adopted, he is the biological son of Carrick Grey and Grace Trevelyan. No crack whore past or related trauma.
  7. I’m going to remain very tight lipped about this story, because there are going to be some (what I hope will be) shocking twists and turns along the way and I want my readers to experience that. Therefore, I will not reveal if it’s HEA (Happily Ever After), I will not reveal if there is cheating, and I will not reveal the fate of any character. It’s all going to unfold organically.
  8. There will be main character deaths.
  9. There are original characters in this story, both good and bad.
  10. This will not be a series the way that Shades of Fifty was. One book only.

Family Trees

Raymond Steele Sr. (Married to Anastasia Steele I)

Raymond Steel Jr. (Married to Carla Wilks)

    • Vincent Steele
    • Anastasia Steele

Walter Steele    

                                *****

Carrick Grey (Married to Grace Trevelyan)

    • Elliot Grey
    • Christian Grey (Married to Leila Williams)
    • Kate Grey
    • Mia Grey

                                *****

John Lincoln (Married to Elena Kelly)

    • John Lincoln Jr. (Died as an infant)
    • Calvin Lincoln
    • Thomas Lincoln
    • Camilla Lincoln

 

Coming after the outtakes for A Stronger Shade of Fifty have been completed