Chapter 36

vidasi

The exhaustion disappears the instant I feel Dr. Baker’s hands on my arm, removing the last of the wires monitoring my heart and the IV from the port in my elbow. I stare almost in disbelief as the last line is removed from my body.

“Do you think you can sit up?” Dr. Baker asks.

“Yes, of course,” I reply, enthusiastically.

Christian reaches his hands out and my whole body feels as though it’s shaking when I take them. Slowly, he helps me into a sitting position, and then to swing my legs off the side of the bed. I was reduced to oral pain killers last night, rather than intravenous, so moving is a little painful, but I do everything I can to hide it. I won’t let anything make Dr. Baker change her mind now.

“Alright. Easy, baby,” Christian says as I pull against his sturdy grip and try to stand. The pain spikes as my weight is transferred to the floor and when I groan, he hurriedly reaches for the wheelchair a few feet away.

“How is that, Ana? Any pain, dizziness, nausea?” Dr. Baker checks.

“No, I’m fine. I’m ready.”

“That’s very good news,” she says, smiling and then looking up at Christian. “I think we’re ready to downgrade her from the ICU. We’ll move her to a private suite on the maternity floor so she’s closer to Calliope. I’ll continue monitoring her there, but if she continues to progress as well as she has been, I don’t think she’ll need to be here much longer.”

“Really? So, she’s in the clear? There’s no longer any reason for us to be concerned…?”

“I don’t think so,” Dr. Baker assures him. “We’ll keep her a couple more days, but she’s really made a remarkable recovery, very quickly. You were right, Mr. Grey. She just needed to do things in her own time. She’s going to be fine.”

He lets out an elated breath. “That’s excellent news. Thank you.”

“Christian. Baby!” I exclaim, turning around and giving him a frustrated look.

“Oh, right. Let’s go. Thank you again, Dr. Baker.”

“Of course. Go enjoy your baby. She really is beautiful, Anastasia.”

I nod eagerly and Christian begins to push me forward. My nerves mount as we make it through the door and travel the long, bustling hallway towards the elevator. The NICU is only a floor down from my room but even just the short elevator ride feels as though it goes on for an eternity. My entire body is trembling with anticipation, like a runner trying to hold his position at the starting mark of a race. I hate that I’m confined to this chair. I hate that I can’t sprint to her the way I want to. Every step it takes to get to the NICU is agony, and I think it’s because, despite Dr. Baker’s assurances, I haven’t entirely accepted this is really happening yet. I’ve been denied this so many times, I feel as though any minute something will go wrong or someone will change their mind and I’ll be dragged back to my room. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced this isn’t just a dream until we round the corner and I see Kate, Mia, and Elliot hovering outside the doors that lead into the NICU, dressed head to toe in the same light pink medical gowns I’ve seen Christian peel off a hundred times after returning from Calliope’s bedside.

“There she is, there she is,” Mia says giddily.

“Hey, Meems,” I greet her as we come to stop. She hesitates for a moment, and then leans forward to give me a tentative hug that grows more ardent when I don’t immediately shatter into a thousand pieces like a china doll. “I’m so happy to see you up and around. You really scared us, you know.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t do it again, promise.”

“I’m holding you to that,” she says, pulling away with a large smile plastered across her face. I return the gesture and then look to Kate.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Great. Dr. Baker says I’m going to be fine. Is she really in there? Calliope?”

“Yeah.” She smiles. “She’s really in there. You have to wear this though.” She holds out the sheet of pink plastic in her hands and I quickly slip my arms through the thin sleeves. Next, Elliot hands me a mask and paper-like covers for my hair and feet, and once I’m completely covered, Christian wheels me over to a hand sanitizer dispenser.

“Alright,” he says as I rub the alcohol over my hands. “Let’s go.”

I take a deep breath when he pushes me through the doors and we begin passing several plastic boxes surrounded by worried looking parents. I glance at each one, wondering which of the incubators is holding my daughter, but as we make it near the back of the NICU and I see Grace and Carrick cooing over a box filled with baby pink blankets, my search is over.

“Isn’t she the most perfect thing you’ve ever seen?” Grace asks. “I could just eat her up.”

“I’d settle for just being able to hold her,” Carrick replies. His finger strokes softly against the plastic casing just as we come up beside them, and when Grace looks up and sees me in the chair, her face immediately breaks into a smile.

“Ana, darling. Come here. There’s someone who wants to meet you very much.” I smile as she steps aside and lets Christian push me right up to the side of the incubator so that I can peer through the clear plastic at the tiny baby inside.

Despite the fact that I’ve thought of nothing else but this exact moment for almost three days, I’m unprepared for how seeing her for the first time makes me feel. I’m immediately absorbed in the small, delicate features of her face, the curve in her lips, the flutter in her eyelids as she sleeps. As I stare at her, memorizing her, counting each of her soft little breaths, I feel my heart begin to ache. Not from sadness or pain, but from overwhelming love. It’s instant, irreversible, and all consuming. Grace, Christian, Dr. Baker, Kate, my dad… they’re all right. She’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen a face so perfect, so angelic, as my daughter’s. She’s mesmerising.

“She’s so small,” I whisper as I place my hand against the plastic box surrounding her.

“But she’s already putting on weight,” a voice says behind me, and I turn to see a doctor in a white coat smiling at me. “You must be Anastasia?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Dr. Craig, I’ve been watching over Calliope for the past few days. You should be very proud, she’s a fighter.”

“Just like her mother,” Christian says.

“I’ve heard,” Dr. Craig says, her smile widening as she looks up at him. She takes a step closer to the incubator, and her eyes seem to warm as she looks down at my baby. “Ah, do you see the way her mouth is moving?”

I look down and watch my baby’s lips pucker and relax a few times before she falls still again and then nod.

“She’s trying to suckle. We have her on a feeding tube now, but I think she’s ready to try eating on her own. Are you up to it?”

“Me? I can feed her?”

“Of course you can, Anastasia. I know this can be overwhelming, but she’s really yours. All yours.”

I let out an almost incredulous sounding laugh through the smile that’s so big, it makes my cheeks feel sore, and Dr. Craig reaches down to place a reassuring hand on my shoulder.

“Dr. Baker told me she’s having you moved to this floor. Why don’t you go get situated, and we’ll bring her to you in just a minute.”

“Wait, she’s leaving the NICU?” Christian asks.

“She’s breathing on her own, she’s gaining weight, she’s maintaining her body temperature… I think she’s ready to give it a try, at least to breastfeed. In fact, once she’s eating on her own, I think she should be just about ready to go home.”

“Already?”

“You have a very strong willed daughter, Mr. Grey. Good luck with her, you’re going to need it.”

Grace gasps and when I turn to look at her, I see her reach up to cover her smile with her hand as tears of joy well in her eyes. It’s a trigger, and immediately, I feel my own bottom lip begin to quiver.

“Let’s go,” I say, looking up at Christian from my chair. “I wanna hold her.”

“Okay.”

He reaches for the handles on the back of the wheelchair and I glance down at Calliope once more.

“I’ll see you in minute, okay? I love you.” My fingers move against the plastic shield between us, trying to grip it as though doing so will make her feel my desire to squeeze her, and with one last lingering look, Christian wheels me away.

The room the NICU nurse leads us to is really just a few doors down, which makes me happy. As long as Calliope has to remain in the NICU, I want to be as close to her as possible. Now that I’m no longer confined to my room in the ICU, I should be free to spend as much time with her as possible, the way Christian has been able to for the last six days.

“Here you are, Miss Steele,” the nurse says, motioning us through the door to my new room. I smile at her but when I get a glimpse of Taylor behind her, looking as though he’s interviewing (maybe even interrogating) a male nurse just down the hallway while Luke takes his picture, my smile falters.

“What’s that about?” I ask Christian, nodding in their direction.

“Oh, they’re just screening the nursing staff.  We need records and documentation of anyone who may come in contact with you while you’re here.”

“Why?”

“It’s just a precaution. Don’t worry about it.” He gives me a placating smile that I immediately see through and my eyes automatically narrow in suspicion.

“What happened? And don’t lie to me.”

He takes a steadying breath. “We’ll talk about it later.”

I press my lips together in frustration, but decide not to push the issue until after I’ve had time with him and Calliope together, alone. He probably thinks I’ll forget or maybe will just let it go, but I won’t. I haven’t forgotten what happened just before my abruption. I know he’s here somewhere.

Christian and the nurse help me get into bed and for a few minutes I’m surrounded by family, talking happily amongst each other about my daughter and the lives they’ve put on hold back home over this past week while Calliope and I hung in limbo. Kate was supposed to take her place as Vice President of Kavanagh Media on Monday, and now that she’s no longer worried about me, she happily shares her excitement about this next step in her life with the Greys. Even my dad ignores the game Elliot found on TV to share in the joyful atmosphere of the room.

“I’ll get used to it,” Kate says airily. “Brand new apartment, a corner office on the 22nd floor… You’re on the 8th floor at GEH, aren’t you, Christian?”

“Yes, Kate,” he replies, his voice deadpan. “You are clearly superior to me in every way.”

“Takes a strong man to admit it.” She laughs but then moves across the room to give him a hug from the side and as he squeezes her back he tells her that he’s proud of her and kisses her on the top of her head.

“We all are,” Carrick agrees, and then turns to look at his son. “When are you moving into your new building, Christian?”

“We’re just waiting on the final inspection from the city now,” Elliot answers for him. “Once we get the approval from them, he should be ready to move in anytime and I can move on to the Amazon campus expansion.”

“And my house,” Christian interjects. “Now that Calliope is born, I want to get her and Ana out of Escala as soon as possible.”

“And we can start planning the wedding!” Mia chimes in.

“Oh, speaking of the wedding,” Carrick turns around and picks up the leather bag he left in the chair under the window and pulls out a folder filled with official looking documents.

“The hospital staff brought Calliope’s birth certificate by this morning. You can make Christian official.”

“If I must,” I say, giving him a coy smile. He raises an eyebrow at me as I take the document and the pen that Carrick hands me and begin filling in the information.

“Detroit,” Christian says when I get to father’s place of birth, and I give him a hard, sardonic look.

“I know where you were born, Christian.”

“I just want to make sure it’s accurate,” he says defensively. I shake my head, scrawl my name across the signature line for Mother, and then slide the document over to him. Once he’s added his own perfect signature under father, there’s a noticeable change in his expression. Something between relief and pride.

“And that’s it,” Carrick says. “Calliope is officially on the record.” I smile as I hand him the birth certificate, but rather than place everything back in his bag, he hands me another document. “This is for you. It’s a medical power of attorney that I’d had drawn up after we found out what Carla had done. This will appoint Christian as your designated agent and he’ll be able to make healthcare decisions for you if for any reason you’re unable to do so for yourself. It’ll hold you over until you get married.”

“Oh.” I take the document and pick up the pen again, but as I sign the line at the bottom of the page, Christian looks away. I’m glad that Carrick had the foresight to have this done for us, but thinking about being in another situation like this so soon seems to put a damper on the great mood that fills the room. Thankfully, just as I hand the signed document back to him, there’s a knock on the door and a nurse pushes a small cart in with a box resting on top that holds my baby.

“Someone’s hungry,” she chirps as she pushes Calliope to my bedside. When she stops she looks at Christian and smiles. “Daddy, do you want to hold her?”

He nods, though his gaze is focused entirely on our baby. He seems almost dazed as he steps forward and reaches into box to lift the tiny pink swaddle of blankets into his arms. The moment she’s pressed into his chest, the small fussy noises she’s making stop and Christian’s face breaks into a breathtaking smile. He gives her the same look that up until now had been reserved solely for me, a look of pure love and adoration, and as I watch him hold and comfort our daughter for the first time, my heart feels as though it swells to the point of bursting.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Grace cries, stepping up to the other side of my bed with her phone out. “Look here, Christian.”

“Mom…” he objects, but before Grace can push her point, Carrick drapes an arm over her shoulder and pulls her back.

“What do you say we let Ana and Christian spend some time with the baby alone, huh? It’s almost lunch time, we can go out, get some real food, and come back to enjoy Calliope after they’ve had their fill of her.”

“Come back in thirty years,” Christian says. His father laughs and then nudges Grace around the bed so they can say their goodbyes. I cycle through hugs with the entire family, as does Christian, and after Mia has kissed Calliope’s head for the 8th time, Elliot is finally able to usher everyone, including the nurse, through the doors and Christian and I are alone.

“What do you say, little girl?” Christian coos to our daughter. “Are you ready to meet your mom?”

The baby doesn’t make a sound, but he leans over my bed anyway and gently places Calliope into my folded arms. Again, I’m floored by how tiny she is. Holding her is almost the same as holding nothing at all, but I can feel her. I can feel what little weight there is to her, I can feel her warmth, and I can feel the tiny movements she makes as she fidgets in her sleep. It finally feels real, like she’s actually mine and I’m going to get to keep her, and as I stare down at her beautiful, peaceful face, I once again feel as though I could cry.

“Have you ever loved anything so much?” I ask through the impending tears. Christian reaches out to place a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Yes, I have.”

I glance up at him and feel my body melt when I see the loving way he’s staring at Calliope and I. He leans down and softly presses his lips into mine and when he pulls away from the kiss, I can’t hold back my ridiculous smile.

“I love you,” he says.

“I love you too. More now that I think I ever have before. This is perfect, Christian. Everything is finally perfect.”

 

To my chagrin, Calliope doesn’t take to breastfeeding. We try on and off for hours but she’s never able to latch, even after I have a lactation specialist come guide us through the entire process. Dr. Baker tells me it’s most likely because she doesn’t yet have the strength to latch to my breast and while I fear after the fourth failed attempt that they’re going to take her from me and reattach her to the feeding tubes in the NICU, a nurse comes in with a special bottle made for premature babies, lays my daughter in Christian’s arms, and, miraculously, she begins to eat.

“Of course she does it for you,” I complain as I stare longingly at him bonding so personally with our baby.

“Here, you can take her,” he says. He shifts towards me but never takes his eyes off Calliope and when I hear the reverence in his voice, I know that I’m not going to be able to separate them.

“No, keep her,” I concede. “Just… tilt her towards me and hold her still so I can see her.” He does, and we both watch her as if she’s the most engaging thing in the world until her bottle is finished and she falls back asleep.

Now that she’s eating on her own and she’s done well for the few hours we’ve had her in my room, the doctors decide it’s time to see how she does overnight outside of the NICU as a trial run so we can discuss taking her home from the hospital. For the next 24 hours she’s under intense observation at my bedside while I’m nearly permanently attached to a breast pump so we can build up a supply to bottle feed her. It’s terrifying having her only feet away from me, with no nurse or doctor hovering over her 24 hours a day, but it’s also wonderful. For the first time, it feels like Christian and I are parents. We’re allowed to feed her, to change her, and to hold her whenever we want to, and when I give her a bottle for the very first time and she opens her tiny gray eyes and stares up at me, the hope I’ve held onto since I awoke in the hospital vanishes and is replaced with absolute certainty. I see the strength and determination in her eyes that I feel in my own heart. She’s healthy, strong, and she’s not going anywhere. Once I’m sure of that, the remainder of our stay here feels very unintimidating.

We spend a total of ten days in the hospital and as the final days tick past us, more and more of our family leaves to head back to Seattle. Grace, Carrick, and Mia fly out on Friday to make it back for Mia’s ballet auditions on Saturday, and Kate and Elliot leave Sunday morning to get back for work. When we’re preparing to be discharged on Monday, only my father is remains with behind with us.

“What’s left at the house?” I ask, as Christian wheels me out to the parking lot where Taylor is waiting with a rental car, since my Lexus has been returned to the dealer.

“Not much,” he replies. “The movers took what Kate is keeping last weekend and Taylor had the rest of the security team load everything you wanted on my plane this morning.”

“So there’s no reason to go back?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

I press my lips together and my mind begins debating what I want before we leave Cambridge for the final time. It feels wrong to just get on a plane without taking a moment to reflect upon the place where so much has changed for me, but as I imagine taking one last walk through the empty halls that will no longer hold any feeling of home, I’m not sure I’ll get the closure I intended to. That’s something that Kate and I should have done together, pausing to reminisce and laugh at every bump or nick in walls. And I can’t stop imagining the blood stained carpet or the memories the very idea of it conjures. No, I don’t think it’s a good idea to return, but I already feel the poignant sense of longing for the house that feels as though it built me.

“Ana?” Christian asks.

“No, we don’t need to go back. I don’t think I’ll get any closure there anyway”

“Well, what if you don’t need closure at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“This place is important to you, baby. It’s not like you’re never going to come back here again. What if we didn’t sell the house? You could keep it so that you could come visit anytime you wanted. Come back to stay a few days with Kate sometime, or bring Calliope to the Harvard vs Yale game every year. Maybe she can live there when she comes here herself.”

I glance up at him and the picture his words give me instantly changes my dismay into something beautiful and sanguine. The feeling of loss is replaced with visions of my daughter running through the back yard in a Crimson sweatshirt, laughing while Christian and I chase her. I think about escaping to the quiet solitude of the empty house for a weekend to put the finishing touches on my next novel, evoking the same inspiration from the four walls of my bedroom that got me through my first book.

“Yeah,” I tell him, smiling. “You’re right. I’m not finished with this place, we should keep it. Thank you, Christian.”

“No,” he says as we come to a stop at the curb and he reaches down to take Calliope out of my arms and kisses her softly on the forehead. “Thank you.”

I spend most of the drive to the airport splitting my attention between staring out the side windows at Cambridge disappearing behind us and worrying over every small bump the car makes and how it could possibly be endangering Calliope. It doesn’t bode well for the flight, but at least once we’re in the air, I can hold her in my arms, which feels safer and more comforting than having her buckled in the carseat in the seat next to me.

“She’s beautiful, Mr. Grey,” Natalia says once we’re at cruising altitude and she can come check on us. “Is there anything I can get for either you or Miss Steele?”

“We’re fine,” Christian says, but he turns to my dad who is sitting across the aisle and a few seats back from us. “Ray?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “But… I would like it if you’d join me back here for a moment to have a chat, son.”

Christian takes a deep breath, exhaling in one long breath, and his body slumps a little, but he nods and turns to me. “I’ll be right back.”

“We’ll be here,” I reply. “Good luck.”

They move to the seats at the very back of the plane, which means I can’t hear what they’re saying, and it has me nervous. Especially because I can’t see my father and every time I glance over my shoulder at Christian, all I see is pain or disgust reflected on his face. I expect them to be gone for… 30 minutes or an hour tops, but when the pilot flips on the fasten seatbelt light and tells us to prepare for landing at SeaTac, Christian still hasn’t returned. In fact, when we begin our descent, it’s my dad that slips into the seat next to me, not Christian, who is occupied with the security team at the back of the plane.

“Well?” I ask. He frowns.

“Your mom left a lot out. A Lot out. That’s… that’s some rough stuff.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “But we got through it and it’s done now. We’ve put it behind us and we’re very happy together.”

“Which is incredible. I’m so proud of you, Ana. The strength it must have taken for you to get through all of that, to stand by him…”

“He’s worth it,” I assure him.

“You know, I think you’re right. I don’t think any father ever thinks there’s a man out there who’s good enough or who deserves his daughter, but this one, this one I like.”

“Told you.”

He smiles at me and then looks down at the sleeping baby in my arms. “Can I hold her?”

“Of course you can.” Moving as little as possible, I slide her into his arms, and once he’s able to pull her against him, his face melts with the same look of pure devotion she seems to elicit from everyone she touches.

“She’s such a pretty baby,” he whispers. “I thought you were the most beautiful little girl I’d ever seen when I first met you, but she may have you beat, kid.”

“She definitely does,” I agree.

“You know, if she has even an ounce of your spirit, you’re in for a whole world of trouble.” The plane bounces as we touch down and before I answer my father, I glance quickly out at the glow of the city lights over the horizon coming from Seattle, waiting for the sense of foreboding that plagued me before I escaped this city what feels like a lifetime ago, but it doesn’t come.

“You ready for it?” my dad asks.

“I really am,” I tell him. “I can’t wait.”

 

I feel extremely tired as we step into the elevator at Escala and begin the journey up to the apartment. Not in the way I did when I was pregnant or in the hospital, but in the way you do after you’ve spent too much time on vacation. Like we’ve had too much of a good thing and now it’s time to relax, decompress, and get back to real life. Kate texted me to let me know she’d brought a crib over to the apartment, since we were expecting to be in the new house by the time Calliope arrived and never put in a nursery at Escala, so all I can think about in the elevator is putting her to bed, saying goodnight to my father, pouring my first glass of wine, and drawing a long relaxing bath to share with Christian. A smile crosses my face as I imagine it, but the dream comes to a crashing halt when the doors open and we hear Kate and Elliot’s voices coming from the kitchen.

“Oh my god, don’t you dare!” Kate squeals.

“I can’t stop it, it’s acting of it’s own accord. There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry, Kate.”

“Elliot…” We hear her scream and then the sound of shattering glass, but as Christian moves Calliope’s carseat behind his back while taking a protective step towards me, and our security team rushes for the kitchen, we hear her laugh.

“Shit, we broke a wine glass,” Kate says. “And it’s Baccarat.”

“Way to go, Kate.”

Christian gives me a side glance over his shoulder, rolls his eyes, and then moves further into the apartment again. Before I follow him though, my dad kisses me goodnight and heads for the stairs that lead up to the guest room, leaving us to survey the damage on our own. Luke and Kommer step aside to let us pass as we walk through the living room and once we can fully see into the kitchen, we find Elliot still holding the sidespray from the sink and Kate gathering the broken pieces of the deep bordeaux glass they’d knocked off the rack. She glances up as she picks up the final shattered piece from the floor, sees us standing on the opposite end of the counter, and her face immediately shifts to a look a chagrin.

“Christian! Ana! You’re home…”

“Oh… hey, bro. Welcome back,” Elliot adds guiltily. Christian glances between them, shakes his head and places Calliope’s car seat on an oversized barstool pressed up against the counter.

“What are you two doing in here?”

“Well, we thought you might be hungry so we came to make you dinner,” Kate says.

Christian narrows his eyes. “I have a housekeeper.”

“We just wanted to make sure you had everything you needed. I wasn’t sure where you wanted to put Callie for the next few weeks so we set up a crib in one of the guest rooms upstairs and a bassinet in your bedroom. I also brought Ana a motherhood survival kit I put together filled with all of the things the internet told me she can’t live without.” She quickly moves from the kitchen to the dining room and pulls a giant basket off the table that seems to be filled with lotions, supplies, and a ton of assorted goods from The Honest Company.

“Awh, Kate,” I say, my bottom lip jutting out as I quickly glance through everything she’s put together for me. “You’re best godmother in the entire world.”

“I know. Mia and I also went to Barnes and Noble last night and bought every children’s book we could find. They’re up in the room with the crib but I should warn you, there’s like 200 of them. I fully intend for you to raise my goddaughter to be a scholar.”

“You’re unbelievable and so incredibly generous,” I say, smiling at her and moving around the counter. “Thank you so much, Kate.” She accepts the hug I give her but only for a moment as she quickly pushes me away and demands to hold the baby. I laugh, take her hand and lead her to the car seat.

“Yes, Kate is very generous,” Christian says, glancing over the basket and then shooting a pointed look at Elliot. “She’s doing an excellent job upholding her title as godmother.” Elliot gasps and places a hand over his chest, like he’s deeply offended.

“You didn’t really think I would forget you, did you Christian?”

“Yes,” he replies flatly. “Yes I did.”

“That hurts, bro. And after all the time I took meticulously wrapping this present for you…”

He too walks over to the table, but instead of picking up a basket, he pulls a square package from one of the dining room chairs, wrapped messily in birthday themed paper, and places it on the counter in front of his brother. Christian smiles, claps Elliot on the shoulder, and begins to tear away the paper. Once he’s got the package opened, he reaches inside, frowns, and then pulls out a bottle of lotion and a box of tissues.

“It’s going to be a long six weeks for you,” Elliot says solemnly. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

Christian rolls his eyes and throws the items back in the box. “You’re such a fuck, Elliot,” he laughs.

“Oh, yeah?” he replies in good humor. “Who do you think put your crib together upstairs, you douchebag?”

“You mean it wasn’t Kate? Great, now I have to go up there and make sure it’s not going to fall apart and kill my baby in the middle of the night.”

Elliot laughs. “You could do that. Or we could go into the library, have a drink to celebrate your daughter, and let these girls catch up a little bit.”

“Yeah,” Christian agrees with a smile. “I think that’s exactly what we should do.”

He comes back to me, kissing me softly on the cheek before going to Calliope as she sleeps peacefully in Kate’s arms. Then both he and Elliot disappear down the long hallway towards the library.

“Ana, I’m obsessed with this baby,” Kate says. “She’s so freaking pretty. You’re like… champion babymaker.”

“Mmm,” I hum in agreement. “I can’t describe it to you, Kate. I love her so much it hurts.”

“And she smells so good. Ugh, I want one.”

I bite down on my lip as she leans down, inhales Calliope’s scent from the top of her head and then places a gentle kiss on each of her round cheeks.

“Speaking of which…” I begin awkwardly. “You seem to be spending a lot of time with Elliot, here… back at the hospital… I’m sorry but, where’s Carter?”

The adoring smile on her face falls, her body deflates a little, and she continues to look at Calliope, not me, as she answers.

“I’m not really sure. He’s… probably back in Georgia, I guess. He didn’t really want to talk to me after.”

“What happened?”

She sighs. “He asked me to marry him, Ana.”

“I know. Clearly, it was the biggest shock of my life.” She lets out a morbid kind of laugh but doesn’t continue, so I push her a little. “So… you said no?”

“I didn’t love him,” she says. “I thought maybe I could, one day, but… I don’t think it works that way anymore. At least not the kind of love I want.”

“What do you mean?”

She takes another breath before she answers me. “This is going to sound horrible but, when we were in the hospital, before Christian knew about Calliope or if you were going to be okay, I spent a lot of time just… watching him. He was devastated. I’m glad you didn’t see him like that, Ana, because it was bad. Really bad. But it was bad because he loves you so much. If you would have died, his whole world would have been destroyed. You consume him, and as terrifying as that makes the idea of losing you to him, it makes what you two have together…” She pauses as she tries to find the words.

“Beautiful?” I suggest. She presses her lips together and shakes her head.

“It’s more than that. It’s what makes life have meaning. I want that. I want someone whose world begins and ends with me. I want someone who would sacrifice anything, who would walk through fire if that’s what it took to make me happy. But also, I want someone who I love so completely, so passionately, that I can’t envision a world where they don’t exist. I want deep, meaningful, true love, Ana, and I was never going to have that with Carter.”

“Okay, that’s fair. If you didn’t love Carter, you shouldn’t have married him. But… what about Elliot? How does he fit into this?”  

She bites her lip. “I’m in love with Elliot, and I love him the way that I want to love the man I’m going to marry. I can’t deny that anymore, and the longer we’re apart the more I have to admit to myself that that love is unshakable. I love his family, I love his sense of adventure, I love the person that he is… I could happily spend the rest of my life with Elliot Grey, but… I don’t know that he loves me the way I need to be loved. If anything is ever going to happen between us again, I need to know that he does, and that he will. Forever.”

“Well, I hope it works out. Selfishly because he’s going to be in my life from now until the end and I can’t go through anymore Gia’s… More selfishly because I love you, Kate, very, very, much, and I want you to have everything in the world that your heart desires.”

“I love you too, Ana,” she smiles. “And I love this baby. Oh my god, I love this baby!” I laugh as she tightens her hold on Calliope and leaves feather light kisses all over her face. Calliope stirs for a moment, but just enough to squish her little face together in protest before her features smooth out and she’s lost to her dreams again. When Kate looks up at me, the pouting look of adorable overload on her face makes me wonder if she’s about to burst into tears, and once again I feel my heart swell.

A timer goes off behind me in the kitchen, so Kate kisses Calliope once more before placing her back in her carrier and coming around the counter with me to pull the lasagna she’s made out of the oven. I move to the cabinet to take out plates for the four of us and to set the table, but before I reach for the door, my eyes fall on a box resting on the counter across from me.

“What’s that?” I ask. Kate looks over her shoulder at the box and then turns back to the bread she’s pulling from the oven.

“Just mail. Whatever wasn’t forwarded to Cambridge, I guess.”

“Oh…” Curiosity gets the better of me so I cross the marble floor to begin sorting through the letters and packages inside. There’s nothing here for me, everything I touch has Christian’s name on it, minus a few letters from my mother which I fully intend to ignore, until my fingers close around a battered looking manilla envelope addressed to me, but with no return address.

“Who’s that from?” Kate asks, glancing over at me as she slices the bread.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t say.” My fingers probe the package, which is surprisingly heavy for something delivered in just an envelope, but as I feel around the edges, I’m able to identify the familiar shape and weight inside.

“It’s a manuscript,” I say.

“Did Random House do any editing?” Kate asks.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think so…” I quickly rip open the flap, reach inside, and pull out the rudimentary bound stack of papers. When I look down at the title page though, it’s not Escape or even Escaping Neverland that I see printed there. What I do see, sends a cold chill over my entire body, like my blood has suddenly turned to ice.

“What is it?” Kate asks. I turn the manuscript to her so she can read the title.

 

Monster.

The detailed first hand account from the broken southern girl that built America’s most powerful CEO

By: Elena Lincoln

 

Chapter 35

baby come back

Consciousness comes and goes like the beat of a heart. I know there are people around me, I can hear their panicked voices, but they sound far away, like I’m hearing them from underwater. I try to cling to the sound, searching specifically for Christian’s voice, but it’s so far away. I’m slipping and I’m afraid that I’ve gone too far until someone moves my body and my resulting scream of pain brings me back from the edge.

“Stay with me, Ana,” Grace says. I open my eyes and find that I’m lying on the living room floor. Grace opens my legs and then reaches under my dress to remove my panties, discarding the blood sodden fabric next to her, as she examines me.

“Here, Mom,” Mia says, flying down the stairs with Grace’s medical bag in hand. Grace nods to her and removes a pair of gloves. She reaches between my legs, making me whimper with pain again, but she only just touches me before she withdraws her hand and shakes her head.

“It’s got to be a placental abruption, a bad one. This baby needs to be delivered right now, and we need to get Ana into surgery or we’re going to lose them both.”

“L-lose?” Christian repeats, sounding dazed, but Grace ignores him.

“Elliot where are we on that ambulance?”

“They said they’ll be here in five minutes.”

She shakes her head again. “Not good enough, she’s losing too much blood… she needs blood.”

“Here,” Christian thrusts his arms towards her. “Take it. Take all of it.”

“What’s her blood type?” Grace asks, looking to my mother, but she just looks down at me, pale and shocked.

“B negative,” my dad says, stepping forward. “Same as me.”

“Congratulations, then. You just bought yourself a ticket on the ambulance ride. Pull your sleeves up.”

Christian shuffles to the side while my dad kneels down in the blood soaked carpet next to me and allows Grace to begin prepping his arm for a blood transfusion line. My whole body begins to shake as a wave of cold washes over me, and while my teeth start to chatter, Christian takes my hand.

“Hold on, baby,” he says, his voice shaking. “We’re going to get you to the hospital. You’re going to be okay.”

“Don’t leave me.”

“I won’t, I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here. Stay with me, baby.”

I shiver again as I feel the needle Grace is holding pierce my skin, and then shake off the impending darkness that’s trying to take me once more.

“C-C-Christian…” I stutter, knowing I don’t have long before I lose the battle and slip under again. “S-ave Callio-pe. I chose Calliope.”

“Don’t talk like that. You’re going to be fine, Ana. You’re both going to be fine. Just stay with me… we’re going to have a baby today.”

“Calliope, Christian.”

“Stop it. You are going to be fine, Anastasia.”

But I don’t know if that’s true or not, because as I lie there watching his eyes well with tears, the blackness overcomes my eyes and I’m lost again.

 

There’s no sense of time passing in the lack of consciousness. Sometimes I can see what I think is light, but I can’t hear anything and I can’t feel anything. There’s nothing and it’s terrifying. My baby is being taken from my body but I can’t feel her, so I don’t know when or if it’s happened. Grace said I was supposed to go to surgery, but I don’t feel any pain or movement. The black is all there is and all I can do is wait, helpless, with no idea when or if it will ever end. For awhile, I’m convinced it won’t, so I almost give up fighting it. But then I remember Calliope, and I think I can almost hear Christian, so I begin to push against the heavy abyss threatening to pull me down once again.

Fighting is exhausting. Again and again, my strength seems to fail and the darkness gets deeper, but then sometimes I feel like the dim light I’ve tried to hold onto is growing stronger, like I’ve almost reached the surface, but I can’t ever be sure. For a brief period, I almost think I feel something touch me, though I can’t decipher who it is or what part of my body is being touched. Then taste comes back, but it’s bitter and it stings the way alcohol does. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, I start to hear voices again, muted at first, but growing more concrete the more I concentrate on them until I can not only decipher the words, but also who’s speaking them.

“But what if she doesn’t, Elliot?” Kate sobs. “What if she never wakes up? What if she’s already gone?”

“She’s not. Okay, you listen to me, she’s going to be just fine. She’s too damn stubborn to go like this and Christian wouldn’t let her if she tried.”

“But the doctors said…”

“The doctors are idiots. Kate, Ana is going to wake up and she is going to be fine. Look at me… she’s going to be okay.”

Kate?

Slowly, I start to feel my body again. Not in the true sense of the word, but at least that it’s there. Everything feels numb, but I have legs again, and hands. I feel as though I’m being pulled back to earth and while I listen to Kate sobbing somewhere in the darkness next to me, I will myself to speak, but I can’t.

I try again, but nothing. Something is choking me. I try to take a breath but it’s cut off, like there’s something lodged in my throat. Panic begins to set in and, finally, my eyes spring open, bringing white, blinding light back into my world. I glance down and see that there’s something plastic covering my mouth, keeping me from breathing, and instinctively, I reach up to bat it out of the way. I’m weak, extremely weak, so my hand only just barely brushes against the thing obstructing my breathing, but the sound is enough to catch Elliot’s attention.

“K-Kate…” He says uncertainly.

“Oh my god!” I hear the scrape of her chair over the linoleum as she rushes to my side and begins fumbling with the plastic box in the bed next to me. “Ana? Ana, can you hear me?”

I reach for the thing that’s choking off my air and find that it’s connected to a tube. My fingers wrap limply around it and I try to pull, but the movement is so anemic it hardly moves.

“No, no, no!” a woman in light blue scrubs cries as she rushes into the room. “Leave it, dear.”

Leave it? I can’t breathe!

I try and take another breath, but end up coughing. Thankfully, the nurse or doctor or whoever she is begins to deconstruct the tubing in my mouth.

“Elliot, Christian is with Calliope,” Kate says quickly.  “Go get him right now.”

“Christian, right…” Elliot says, almost distracted. “What about Carla?”

Kate glares at him. “No, fuck Carla. When Ana finds out what she… We’ll call Ray once we know, but right now, go get Christian.” He nods and darts from the room just as several more medical staff come through the door.

“Anastasia, my name is Dr. Lapp,” the woman in light blue scrubs tells me. “The blockage you feel in your throat right now is intubation. I will remove it, but I need you to relax, okay? Can you do that for me?”

I close my eyes and will my body to stop fighting, but it’s difficult because it feels as though she is yanking my throat out of my body as she removes the tube. I cough and take deep gasping breaths, but each one of them burns. As air floods into my lungs, it actually makes me feel lightheaded, not stronger, and for a moment, I fear the blackness is going to return, but I refuse to let it. Now that I’m back in the light, I can’t allow myself to go under again. I need to know what happened. I need to know where my daughter is and that she’s okay. I brace myself while the doctors surround my bed and as I try to gain control over my breathing, Christian bursts into the room.

“Ana!”

I glance over at him and am shocked. He looks haggard. Worse than I’ve ever seen him. His hair is in disarray, there’s inexplicably several days worth of facial hair on his chin, and his eyes are marred by deep black circles. As he walks towards me, peeling away the light pink medical gown from his body, I see that he’s wearing the same clothes he was on graduation day. His shirt is still spotted with my blood. Still, as he glances over me, his face morphs into a melting pot of emotion so intense, I wonder for a moment if he’s about to have a breakdown. “Oh, thank god.” he breathes. “You’re awake. Thank god, thank god, thank god…”

I try to speak again when his hand clasps mine, but I can’t. My throat is too raw. All I can do is let out a hoarse, painful breath that means nothing. He looks up at the doctor with wide, panicked eyes.

“Is she…”

Dr. Lapp shakes her head. “We’re not sure yet, Mr. Grey. We’ve only just taken out her intubation. She hasn’t spoken yet.” She turns to me. “Anastasia, do you know who this is?”

I look between the doctor and Christian, confused by the question. Why wouldn’t I know who Christian was? I try again to speak, but am only able to make the same, incomprehensible wheezing sound, so I settle for nodding my head, and Christian’s entire body sags with relief.

“What about her?” She points to Kate and I nod again, so she moves onto Elliot. “Him?” Another nod. “Good, Ana. That’s very good. Do you know where you are?”

I take a breath again, forcing my voice this time, but the words comes out so hoarse it sounds like the strangled death cry of a zombie from some horror movie. “Calliope?”

“What was that, Anastasia?” Dr. Lapp asks.

“Calliope.” I try again, and this time, my voice is a little stronger, clearer, but the doctor still doesn’t seem to understand me.

“I-I…”

“She’s asking about our daughter” Christian explains, but I’m confused by the inflection in his voice. It’s like he’s overjoyed and in incredible pain all at once. Oh no… where is my baby?

“Oh, I don’t have…” Dr Lapp begins, but Christian cuts her off again, kneeling down by my bedside as he speaks.

“She’s here,” he reassures me. “She was born on May 7th at 4:53 in the afternoon. She’s 17 ½ inches long and weighs 4 lbs, 7 ounces, no… 9 ounces now. You made a perfect baby, Ana. She looks just like you and she’s absolutely wonderful.”

Relief washes over me.

“I-I want her,” I croak. “Bring her to me.”

He frowns, but Dr. Lapp intercedes before he can answer me.

“Ana, your surgery was successful, but not without complications. The blood loss you experienced before and after surgery was significant. We need to run some tests to check your organs and your neurological function…”

“I want my baby,” I say, trying to be firm even though my voice comes out in only a very painful whisper. “I want to see my daughter.”

“I can’t bring her to you, Ana,” Christian says. “She’s in an incubator. She’s okay, but she’s premature and she had a traumatic delivery. She can’t breathe on her own yet and she can’t eat on her own… she can’t leave the NICU.”

“W-what?”

“Don’t worry, baby. She’s doing well,” he adds quickly. “She’s getting bigger and stronger everyday.”

“Everyday? Wait… how long was I out? What day is it?”

“It’s Tuesday, the 10th.”

“The 10th?” My eyes begin darting back and forth as I count the days between today and Saturday. “Three days? My daughter has been born for three days and I haven’t… I haven’t…” My breathing sharpens as I feel the threat of impending tears and it aggravates the pain in my throat again. Calliope is somewhere in this hospital fighting for her life without my help, my love, my support… and she has been for days. She needs me.

Though I still feel incredibly weak, I reach down for the tubes connected to the inside of my elbow and begin scraping at the tape holding them in, trying to yank them out of my arm.

“Ana, stop,” Christian says, but I ignore him.

“I’m going to her. You’re going to take me to her right now.” My head starts to swim and my vision grows dimmer, but I’m determined. I’m going to go to my daughter’s bedside.

“Anastasia…” Dr. Lapp says. “You’ve had major surgery, you’ve only just regained consciousness. You still have a catheter in… I can’t let you get out of this bed.”

“Then you’re going to have to sedate me.” I wince with pain as I try and sit up and realize that it’s not just my throat, my entire body aches. It doesn’t stop me though, I won’t let anything stop me, but before I can even pull the thin hospital blanket from my lap, there are three different sets of hands on me, holding me down, and I’m not strong enough to fight them off.

“Miss Steele, you need to sit back.”

“No! No, I have to see her.”

“You will, as soon as we…”

“No, let me go. Please!” I struggle to pull my arm out of an orderly’s hands and my breath hisses between my teeth as the IV rips out of my skin. Dr. Lapp says something to the nurse next to her about bringing her arm restraints, so Christian takes my hand from the orderly on my right and forces me to look at him.

“Ana, Calliope is getting the best care that she can get right now. She is in good hands and she’s doing better every single day. Every hour. Soon, she’s going to be strong enough to go home and when she is, she’s going to need her mother. You can’t fix her right now. The best thing you can do for Calliope is to take care of yourself, do what the doctors tell you, and get better. Please, baby. Lay still.”

I stare into his pleading eyes and then break down into tears. “Christian, she’s been in this world for three days and I’ve never seen her. I have to see her.”

“I have pictures,” he says, reaching for his phone.

“Me too,” Kate interjects behind him, and both she and Elliot step forward with their phones out.

“This is going to have to wait,” Dr. Lapp argues. “It’s imperative that we begin tests to evaluate her condition as soon as…”

“Please,” Christian says. “One minute. Just let her see that her child is safe and alive and then you can run all the tests you need.”

Dr. Lapp hesitates, but nods and waves toward the door for the staff around me to leave the room. She quickly re-inserts my IV before she follows the others out, and once she gone I hastily pull Christian’s phone from his hands.

There aren’t the hundreds of pictures here that I want, in fact there aren’t even ten, but as I pull up the first one, I immediately start crying again.

“She’s so beautiful,” Christian says, settling down on the bed next to me. “My mother thinks she has my eyes because they’re gray now, but I’m hoping they’ll turn blue like yours. She does have your mouth though, and your dark hair. She’s perfect.”

“She’s so tiny,” I say through my tears as I flip through the photos. Her color is wrong. There’s too much purple in her pigment. She has tubes and wires covering her, coming out of her, and just the sight of them makes my heart physically ache. She looks so fragile and every instinct in my body is telling me to go to her, to protect her, to make her better… Seeing her that way, knowing I can’t go to her, that Christian will stop me if I try, is unbearable. I have to give his phone back to him. Looking at her on the screen of a phone is just torture right now.

“How long until I can see her?” I ask. “An hour? Two? When?”

“I don’t know, baby. I don’t know…”

“Well then get the doctor back in here. The sooner I do their stupid tests, the sooner I can get to Calliope.”

He nods and gets off the bed, pushing past Kate, Elliot, and Luke, who I hadn’t noticed standing in the corner before, to bring Dr. Lapp back into the room. As she returns with her staff and a whole new slew of medical equipment, I have to say goodbye to my family. Kate leans over and hugs me so gingerly, it’s like she’s afraid I might break. Elliot doesn’t even try, instead he leans over to kiss me on the top of my hair and tells me never to scare them like that again. I give him a weak smile and then reach out for Christian.

“Mr. Grey,” Dr. Lapp pushes him, glancing towards the door, and he nods.

“I’m going to be close. I’ll be back the second they let me, I promise.”

“Stay with Calliope,” I tell him. “Don’t ever leave her alone.”

“Never,” he agrees. “My parents have been with her ever since they were let back into the NICU and I’ve only left her when I’ve been with you. We’re taking care of her, I promise. Just get better, okay. She’s ready to meet you.” Tears prick my eyes again and Dr. Lapp lets out an irritated sigh.

“Mr. Grey.”

“I’m going,” he says, standing from my bedside, but not releasing my hand. “I love you, Anastasia. So very much.”

“I love you too,” I reply. “Go be with our daughter.” He nods and slowly exits the room, Luke hovering close behind him, and the moment the door closes I break down. Tears flow freely down my cheeks as the doctors begin prodding me, hooking me up to different machines, and piercing my skin for blood samples. They wheel my entire bed into a different room to give me an MRI, and when they truly move me for the first time, I feel the residual pain from my surgery like fire inside of my body. Once I’m in the claustrophobic tube I lie there, completely impotent, my body battered and riddled with pain, thinking only of making it through this torture so that I can get where I’m truly needed.

Calliope. At the end of this, they’ll take me to Calliope.

Unfortunately, the test results take hours to come back, and when they do, they’re not good. Dr. Baker is back on shift, so she comes to give me the devastating news about my weak heart and low blood cell count that means my blood isn’t clotting well. I’m at high risk for sudden cardiac arrest, sepsis, and even just bleeding out, and until they have my blood condition under control, I can’t leave this room. Dr. Baker tries to reassure me by telling me what a miracle it is that my neurological function and memories seem to be fully intact, but it’s difficult to find solace in simply maintaining something I didn’t realize I was in danger of losing when I know my daughter is in critical condition somewhere on one of the many floors of this hospital and I can’t get to her.

“So, where do we go from here?” Christian asks Dr. Baker, gripping tightly to my hand from the chair next to my bed.

“Unfortunately, we’re not exactly sure what is depleting her cell count. This kind of treatment is beyond my scope of knowledge,” Dr. Baker says. “I’ve requested a consult from a hematologist but it’s a very rare specialty and this hospital only has credentials for one doctor, who is currently in upstate New York at a conference. He won’t be here for a few days.”

“A few days?” Christian repeats incredulously, and Dr. Baker nods.

“I’ve sent him all of Ana’s charts so he can review them before he actually sees her but it will take him a few days to get back to Cambridge. In the meantime, we’ll be monitoring Ana’s condition around the clock and giving her the absolute best care possible.”

“But until she sees this specialist, she won’t be able to visit the NICU?”

“That is correct, Mr. Grey.”

My head falls back into my pillows as I fight the torrent of emotion this delay creates within me. The sound of my sobs seems to overpower Christian arguing with Dr. Baker about finding another doctor, about flying one here from anywhere in the US, from Europe if need be, but apparently there are all kinds of administrative roadblocks to prevent that from happening. I’d have to be transported to a new facility and right now, that’s impossible. There’s nothing we can do but wait, and every second that passes feels as though it’s going to kill me. Christian’s face is marred with agony as he holds me the best he can through the tubes and wires still connected to my arms and fingers while I cry long into the night, until eventually, I cry myself to sleep.

 

The next morning, I wake up and am surprised to find Christian isn’t at my side. Instead, it’s my father sitting in the chair closest to me and Luke in the chair resting under the window. Their eyes are both locked on the TV over my bed playing a baseball game but my father’s hand is wrapped around mine at my side.

“Dad?” I ask groggily, and he jumps in surprise when he hears my voice.

“Annie? Oh my god, you… you really know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are. Where’s… where’s Christian?”

“He had to go down to the NICU, so I told him I’d sit with you. They’re taking Callie off the ventilator.”

“What? They are? Does that mean she can come down here?”

“No, not yet. She’s gotta gain a little bit more weight before they take her out of the incubator, and I don’t know if they’re gonna bring a newborn baby into the ICU, sweetie. Especially a preemie.”

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I wail, the desperate tone returning to my voice as I start to cry again. “I need to see my daughter. Please, Daddy, do something. Help me. I’ve missed her whole life so far, I can’t stay here anymore.”

“I know, baby. I know.” His voice begins to break too. “But I promise you, she’s doing just fine. The doctors are all very impressed by her and that man of yours is doing everything he can to get you to that baby as soon as humanly possible.” He pauses. “He… he really loves you.”

“I know,” I reply, but he shakes his head.

“I didn’t. I mean, I knew you said it, and it’s not that I didn’t believe you, it’s that… I didn’t see the way he loves you.” His expression shifts into something much more painful, so I squeeze his hand to get him to look at me again.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?” He looks up and there are real tears in his eyes now.

“I’m so sorry, Ana.”

“For what?”

“I was with you the whole time,” he begins. “I was giving you blood so I rode here in the ambulance and went directly into the OR with you. There was so much blood, and I’ve seen blood, believe me, but this… I didn’t know how you were going to make it through this. When they got you onto the surgery table, the doctors pushed me out of the way and told me I’d have to go to the waiting room with the rest of the family, but everyone was so distracted trying to save you, that I was able to sit right outside the operating room and no one even noticed.”

“I kept waiting for the sound of the baby crying. It felt like it was taking forever and I thought, ‘how long could it possibly take to open you up and deliver the baby?’. But I never heard her. Someone came through the doors not long after I’d left you, pushing a plastic bin filled with blankets as quickly away from the OR as they could, but they didn’t look at me. They didn’t say anything, so I waited. For a very long time.”

“Finally, someone came out and saw me sitting there. He was covered in blood, in your blood, and he looked like he’d just seen death. I swear my heart stopped. I was sitting there, preparing myself to hear that you’d died on the table, but that’s not what he told me. He said that you’d experienced very serious complications during surgery and that he’d like to speak to your mother and I about the repercussions of those complications. I went straight to the room they were going to put you up in to wait and a few minutes later they brought in Carla. When the doctor finally came in, he told us that the amount of blood from your abruption meant that it took them too long to find the tear inside of you to repair, and when they did, and they started to sew you up, your heart stopped. Again and again. Between reviving you and making the repair, you’d lost too much blood. Your heart was weak, your blood pressure was incredibly low, and with the amount of blood loss you’d experienced… the damage was already too great. He didn’t think you were going to be able to wake up, and if you did, there was a great possibility, almost certainty, that you’d suffer from severe brain deficiencies. You’d lose your memories, your motor function, everything that made you, you.”

“I realized then that that’s why they were letting us wait in your recovery room. They were gifting us time because they were certain we were going to lose you. I asked about Callie, your mother had already gotten an update on her when she was in the waiting room, so the doctor really just talked to me. He told me that she was placed into an incubator, put on a vent, and would be under intensive observation for the next 72 hours. If she made it through the first three days, they believed that her chances were good, but those first 72 hours were critical.”

“I was still reeling from the news about Calliope when they finally brought you in, and when I looked at you, I was shocked. You were so pale, you looked like a ghost. There was tube in your mouth and all kinds of tubes coming out of your arms. I thought, there’s no way she’ll make it out of this, she won’t make it through the night, and while you’re mother and I sat there, holding your hands, I actually thought to myself, where was Christian? Why were you slipping away from this world while the man who told me, to my face, that he loved you was nowhere to be seen? I’d heard him promise you as you bled in his arms that he wouldn’t leave you, but he did. He wasn’t there, and it made me angry. I told Carla she may have been right about him, that there was no way he wouldn’t be here if he loved you the way he said he did, and while she agreed with me, the doctor who was examining you, uh…. Doctor Baker, I think her name was, she told me that he was in the waiting room. She said your mother had asked the staff not to let anyone who wasn’t immediate family receive any kind of information about your condition or the baby’s. She said he’d been asking to see you every chance he got, but they had to turn him away, they couldn’t tell him anything. She said if we’d let her, she’d love to bring him back right then.”

“He didn’t know. He had no idea how your surgery went, how your recovery was going, where his baby was… and it had been almost a full day. I didn’t think that was fair. So, I got up and I went out into the waiting room to talk to him. But when I came through those double doors and saw him, he looked up at me and the look on his face… It was like I was watching a man burning alive. He was in so much pain, I could see it.”

He has to stop to collect himself, but I don’t say anything. I just stare at him with wide, pain filled eyes until he speaks again.

“I told him that you were alive and in recovery, but that it didn’t look good. I told him that you’d lost too much blood and the doctors thought you were already gone, that it was the machines keeping you alive now. You would have thought I shot him if you saw the look on his face, the pain, the helplessness… He looked up at me and begged, actually begged me to see you, so I brought him to your room. Your mother was furious when she saw him, but he didn’t look at her. He didn’t speak to her. He pretended like she wasn’t there. He sat in my seat next to your bed, took you hand, and started talking to you. I almost thought he’d gone crazy because he kept pleading with you not to follow Calliope, that he knew you’d want to, but he couldn’t live without you.”

“It didn’t make any sense. Callie was in bad shape too, but she was alive. She was in the NICU and the doctors hadn’t given us the grim prognosis for her that they’d given us for you. So, I told him, ‘Christian, Callie’s fine. She’s being taken care of right now,’ and he first looked at me like he didn’t understand what I said, and then at your mother. The pain on his face was gone instantly and replaced by fury, and as I listened to what he was screaming at her, I understood why. Your mother had stopped the hospital staff from giving him or his family any updates on the baby, and so after they’d told her about Callie’s condition, she’d told him that Callie was stillborn. That she’d never lived. She lied, and as I looked at your mother, the woman I’d been married to for sixteen years, it was like I suddenly didn’t recognize her. I didn’t understand how someone could be so cruel, and while the doctors rushed in to restrain Christian to try and keep him from attacking your mother, I grabbed her by the arm, dragged her out to the waiting room, and told her not to move again.”

“The rest of his family was still there, Grace, Carrick, Elliot, Mia, and Kate… Luke and Taylor too. They didn’t know what was going on, they still thought you’d lost Callie. Grace looked absolutely devastated, Kate was shaking… so I let them know what was happening. I think Carrick threatened legal action against Carla for lying to Christian about Calliope. I don’t what’s going to happen between her and the Greys, I don’t know if this is forgivable, and I didn’t know if I should say something at the time… I was going to, but then Christian was brought back out to the waiting room by two security guards. You’d coded again, and he was refusing to leave you, so they had to physically remove him. I thought he might try to chase them back into the ICU, but he didn’t. He just slumped into a chair, burning again, and I did the only thing I knew to help him. I took him to the NICU, and I introduced him to his daughter.”

“That helped, for a while. It probably would have done more if her color had been better, but he stared at her for a long time, throughout the entire night and most of the next day. He sat there, holding her hand through the side of the incubator and told her all about you, about the life he wanted for her. We all came to check on him over and over again, but he wouldn’t leave. He’d ask us about you and when we didn’t have anything to tell him, he’d ask us to go. Elliot finally got him out of there by convincing him that he at least needed to try and eat, but they came back just as the doctors came to talk to your mother and I. They were telling us that your heart couldn’t keep up anymore, that you had coded three times through the night and your blood count was in freefall… They reminded us of the improbability of you ever waking up, of you being in a practically vegetative state if you did, and then asked if we wanted to discuss withdrawal of care.”

“That’s why I’m sorry, because it was something I was ready to consider. I’d seen you and how frail you looked. I thought you were trying to go and I didn’t think you’d want the kind of life the doctors were talking about, but Christian… he flew off the handle. He wouldn’t hear it and when they let us back to say our good-byes, he refused to leave your side and refused to let anyone touch you. He was threatening everyone, I was pretty sure he was ready to fight anyone who came to take him away… Elliot tried to calm him down, make him see reason, but he said you always did things in your own time. He said that you just weren’t ready to wake up yet, but that you would and you would be fine. He wasn’t ready, and I couldn’t do it with him like that. I wanted to give him the time to accept what I thought was inevitable, so I told the doctors we were going to give you some more time. They continued your treatments, monitored your heart and your organs throughout the night, and somehow, miraculously, you improved. Your heart had been in A Fib, but it just… normalized. Your vitals grew stronger, your color started to come back… We waited another full day and then, you woke up. Like nothing had happened at all. I’ve never felt worse than I did when Kate came and told me that you were awake, because I was ready to give up on you, every one was, but not him. He fought for you, Anastasia. He refused to give up on you. He protected you. And now I know. Now I see the way he loves you. Whatever else is in his past, we can work through it, I’ll find away to work through it, but I trust your judgement now, Annie. If he’s what you want, I finally believe that he deserves you.”

I wipe away the tears flowing freely down my cheeks, and nod. My dad gets out of his chair and pulls me, gently, into a hug.

“But I don’t understand…” I say while his arms are still around me. “Why didn’t the doctors tell Mom instead of Christian about Calliope? Why would they let him think she was gone? Why didn’t they take him back to her the moment she was stabilized in the NICU?”

“Because I’m not her father,” Christian’s voice says from the doorway, and both my father and I start as we turn to look at him.

“What? Of course you…”

“Not legally,” he cuts me off.  “We’re not married, Ana, and the State of Massachusetts doesn’t assume paternity for unwed couples until the mother signs the birth certificate and names the father. You were unable to do that so guardianship and the ability to make medical decisions fell to Carla because she’s your next of kin. My father knew the law, it’s the same in Washington, so he’d already warned me that I was going to have to prove I was Calliope’s father. I was having my cheeks swabbed for a paternity test when your mother got the news about our daughter. She told me Calliope was… that she…” he shakes his head, unable to say the words. “She knew that if you… died, that I would fight to take Calliope from her and she wanted to avoid a custody battle. I think she thought this would be easier.”

“I would never have let that happen,” my dad interjects. “Carla has never been able to see or to admit to herself that a girl needs her dad. She tried to take Ana from me when she ran off with that son of a…” He stops, swallows, and then continues. “I wouldn’t have let your daughter grow up without knowing you, Christian.”

“Thank you, Ray.”

I stare at Christian for a moment in utter disbelief until the shock wears off and I’m left with nothing but anger. No, not anger… rage. Blinding, consuming rage that let’s me forget about the horrible pain and instead has my entire body shaking.

“Where is she now?” I ask through clenched teeth.

“In the waiting room,” my father answers. “Now that you’re awake… I think she’s afraid to come see you. I think she’s ashamed, which is impressive for Carla…”

“Bring her to me,” I tell him.

“Ana…”

“Bring her to me, right now!” Christian and my dad both fall silent as the forceful timber of my exclamation echos through the room. They both hesitate for a moment, looking as though they’re not sure whether or not it’s a good idea to do as I’ve asked, but eventually, my father nods, gets out of his seat, and leaves the room.

“I’m sorry, Christian,” I whisper once we’re alone. “I can’t believe she would do that… I can’t believe…”

“Hey.” He moves quickly to occupy the seat my father vacated and takes my hand in his. “You don’t have to apologize for her. If anyone should be apologizing, it’s me…”

“You?”

“From the moment the paramedics put you in the back of the ambulance, I’ve been going over this and over this in my head, trying to figure out what happened. What we did wrong… We knew you were bleeding, I shouldn’t have just accepted it was something as simple as a scrape. If I’d have taken you to the hospital, they could have delivered Calliope earlier in the afternoon and you both would have been safe. Instead, you almost bled out on the table and Calliope was so oxygen deprived, she was blue when she was born. I almost lost both of you. For awhile, I thought I had.”

“Christian…”

“And I shouldn’t have been so rough with you the night before graduation. What if I injured you? What if I’m the reason you…”

“No, stop. This wasn’t your fault, Christian.”

“You can’t know that.”

“Yes, I can. The doctors said I had a placental abruption, right? Well, I’ve known that was a possibility for months, since Dr. Baker first told me I was developing  pre-eclampsia. If this is anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I should have taken her warnings more seriously, I should have worked harder to manage my stress better… Besides, I’m the one who didn’t want to go to the hospital, remember? I put graduation ahead of my own baby’s life. What kind of mother does that?” I fall silent for a moment, letting the impact of my own words wash over me, and then break down again. Christian gets out of his chair and sits on the bed next to me, holding me and rocking me back and forth as he tries to soothe me.

“Baby…”

“Christian, I have to see her. I can’t look at pictures anymore or videos on your parents’ phones. She’s been inside of me, protected from the world, for seven months and now she’s just gone. It’s like she’s disappeared and if I don’t see her today I’m going to… I-I… I just can’t. I can’t. Please, Christian.”

“I want you to hold her, baby. I want to bring her to you. I’ve spoken with the hematologist Dr. Baker called, offered him double his salary, and he’s getting here as quickly as he possibly…”

“Ana?”

We both glance  up and see my mother and father in the doorway. She looks at me uneasily, almost as though she’s afraid of me, and honestly, right now, she should be. I’ve never been so angry with anyone in my life, not with Christian when we first broke up, not even with Elena, ever. Even though I didn’t agree with their actions, I could understand them, see the motivation and the reasoning they used to justify what they had done, but this… this was just cruel. If my father wasn’t here, if I hadn’t woken up to fix what she had done, she would have ruined the lives of everyone I loved. That’s something I can’t forgive.

“Sweetheart, I’m so happy that you…” she begins in a breathy kind of voice that’s ladened with impending tears, but I cut her off before she can really start.

“I want you to go back to your hotel, pack your bags, and get on a plane back to Georgia. I have nothing more to say to you except for that I don’t want you around me or my daughter. Don’t call me again, don’t come visit me, don’t send me letters in the mail. We are done.”

“Ana, please…”

“Good-bye.”

She stares at me, dumbfounded, for a moment. Her body seems frozen which means she isn’t leaving, and while she stands there trying desperately to find something to say, I glance over at the corner of the room to where my CPO is seated.

“Luke.”

He nods and gets out of his seat to physically remove my mother from my room, and as his hands clasp around her forearms, she seems to overcome her shock and starts pleading for me to listen to her. Luke looks back at me but I shake my head and in the next moment, my mother is gone, leaving us only with the sound of her increasingly frantic cries as she’s pulled down the hall.

“Ana, you don’t have to… I’m not asking you to choose between your mother and I,” Christian begins, but I shake my head again.

“You’re not, she is, and this isn’t the first time she’s asked me to do this. She made me feel like I had to choose her over my dad when she ran away with Stephen. I shouldn’t have chosen her then, even for the few weeks that I did, and I’m not going to do it now.”

“But your parents…”

“I still have the only real parent I’ve ever had. The one who would never betray me the way she did this week, the one whose love is more than just words. Right, Dad?”

“Always, sweetheart.”

Christian lifts my hand to his lips so that he can kiss each one of my fingertips as my father comes to sit on my other side and focuses his attention back on the game still playing on the TV over my bed. The atmosphere in the room changes as we sit there, becomes more relaxed, and while I settle back into my pillows and try not to feel like the worst mother in the world, Christian plays with the engagement ring I was only just able to put back on my finger last night.

“You a baseball fan, Christian?” my dad asks as the innings change.

“Not for the fucking Red Sox,” he replies lightheartedly. “My dad and brother are diehards for the Mariners. In fact, he might have words for me just for allowing this shit to be played in Ana’s room.”

My dad laughs. “Yeah, well I guess that’s what you get this close to Boston. You know, babygirl, if you’d just had your baby the way we’d planned, we could be home right now, watching real baseball.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry I’m inconveniencing your baseball game right now,” I say sarcastically. “How could I be so inconsiderate?”

“I don’t know, it’s not how I raised you,” he says, smiling but not looking away from the game.

I reach out and slap him across the arm, but when he turns to look at me, and probably to make fun of me for how weak that slap actually was, there’s a knock on my door and a new doctor I’ve never seen steps into my room alongside Dr. Baker.

“Miss Steele? I’m Dr. Wong, the hematologist Dr. Baker asked for.”

“Finally,” Christian hisses irritably under his breath, but I pay him no mind as the sudden appearance of the doctor I feel as though I’ve waited years for, the last doctor to stand between me and Calliope, has my full attention.

“Yes, yes…” I stutter. “How is my blood count? Can I see my daughter now?”

“No, and unfortunately the tests you’ve had done are inconclusive as to what your condition really is. I’m not sure what is depleting your cell count but if we don’t get it under control you risk developing permanent anemia or cardiac arrest.”

“So what do we do?” Christian asks, his voice urgent now and his hand gripped tightly around mine.

“We’ll start with an iron transfusion and overnight observation. If her counts aren’t better by tomorrow, we’ll have to consider steroid therapy.”

“Tomorrow?” I squeak. “I can’t wait until tomorrow. I haven’t seen my baby….”

“Anastasia.” Dr. Wong sits on the side of my bed and turns to face me. “Unfortunately, the iron transfusion is your best option right now. If we have to put you on steroid therapy, we’ll also have to give you an immuno suppressant. My understanding of what Dr. Baker has told me about your daughter’s condition is that she was born premature and has her own immune system deficiencies. If you’re placed on an immuno-suppressant, you will be unable to have any kind of contact with her until you’ve completed therapy and your system has stabilized.”

“What?” Panic rises inside of me but Christian squeezes my hand reassuringly as he addresses the doctor.  

“What time frame would we be looking at for her to complete that kind of therapy?”

“If the therapy is successful and we’re to ensure all of her symptoms and the related risks have been resolved, a minimum of four weeks.”

My breath catches in my throat, and stays there, choking me. My chest begins to heave as I struggle to take in oxygen and my head starts to feel light. Four weeks? I can’t go four weeks before I see my daughter… I can’t go another day.

“Four weeks is unacceptable. I can’t… Please. I need to see my daughter, now. Please, let me see her…”

Dr. Baker steps closer to the bed. “Ana, I know you need to see her and we’re doing everything we can to get you to Calliope. I promise, we haven’t lost sight of that. But we don’t just want you to see her today, we want you to take her home and have her every day. You’re not out of the woods yet, please let us help you.”

“I know how hard this must be, Anastasia,” Dr. Wong says. “But if the transfusion is successful, which I’m optimistic it will be, you could be able to visit your daughter as early as tomorrow morning. Let’s give this a try and worry about the other possibilities later, okay?”

I frown. I’m not happy with any of the options presented to me but I know that I have no other choice, so I nod. Dr. Wong smiles down at me and leaves the room with Dr. Baker. Twenty minutes later, I have a new IV and I spend the rest of the night counting each drop of the dark liquid from my iron transfusion as they drip with agonizing slowness through the tube and into my arm.

 

It’s a long night as Dr. Wong wakes me every 2 ½ hours to take my vitals, which means that I’m never really able to get any sleep. By the time morning comes, I’m so tired that I nearly sleep through the blood draw I have to go through so Dr. Wong can reevaluate my blood cell count. When he’s finished he tells me the results will take some time so I’m allowed to get a few more hours sleep, which is probably the only thing that keeps me from going out of my mind. Unfortunately, I’m able to sleep a little too well. The exhaustion seems to weigh so heavily on me while I sleep that when I’m finally being nudged awake, it’s almost difficult to open my eyes.

“Ana. Wake up, baby,” Christian says softly.

“Hmm,” I hum sleepily.

“Come on, wake up.”

I groan as I pry open my eyes and squint up at him through the sunlight pouring through the windows of my room.

“Did the results come back?” I mumble.

“Yeah, they did.”

“And?”

He pauses, and then smiles. “Let me help you out of bed. I want to take you to meet our daughter.”

 

Next Chapter

The Worst Author’s Note Ever

giphy

So, I know I left the last chapter on a bit of a cliff hanger (a minor one really… right?), but unfortunately I’m not going to be able to post on Monday. My mother passed away very suddenly and I am devoting the next week to being with my family.

 

I’m sorry to leave you all in the place I did, but thank you for your understanding.

-WishingMrGreyWasHere

 

Chapter 34

graduation robes

I’m out of breath. My entire body is sore, tired, and covered in sweat. The pain is horrific. All I can think about is how much I want it to stop. I want to sleep, but I can’t. Somehow, I have to find the strength to go on even though I feel as though I have nothing left to give. There’s only one thing that can keep me going now, only one person I would endure this for.

“You’re almost there, Anastasia,” Dr. Baker says. “Push.”

I tighten my muscles and force as much pressure down on my pelvis as I can manage, but my strength gives out too quickly.

“I can’t,” I whine as I start to cry. “I can’t.”

“Yes you can, baby,” Christian says at my side. “You’re doing so well. Take my hand.” I reach up, grasp the hand he offers, and squeeze it tightly.

“You’re almost done, Ana. I have her head,” Dr. Baker encourages me. “Just one more really big push.”

“Can you see her?” I ask, looking up at Christian. For the first time since I began pushing, he looks away from me and glances down between my legs. When he does, his face breaks out in a huge, radiant smile.

“Yes, I can see her.”

“Okay, here we go,” Dr. Baker says, calling my attention once more. “Give me the biggest push you can in 3, 2…”

I scream as I once again focus the last of my remaining strength into pushing my daughter from my body, and even though it feels almost feeble and the pain comes more intensely, there’s a shift and then I feel her go.  A second later, the room is filled with the high screeching sound of Calliope’s cries.

“I’ve got her,” Dr. Baker says, smiling. “Congratulations, Mama.” I laugh with pure, radiant happiness as Christian brings my fingers to his lips, kisses them hard, and then lets go so he can take the medical scissors the doctor offers him to cut the umbilical cord. I told her before I wanted them to clean her before they laid her in my arms because once I had her, I didn’t want to have to let her go. So, while I listen to the gentle sounds of water running into the metal basin on the other side of the room, Christian returns to me and leans over to kiss my still glistening forehead.

“Ten fingers, ten toes,” he says. “And she’s absolutely beautiful.”

“Bring her to me,” I plead. Dr. Baker turns as she begins wrapping my baby in a soft yellow blanket. Once she’s swaddled, Christian moves across the room to take our daughter into his arms and then, slowly, he carries her to me.

I reach desperately for her, but as he lays the pile of blankets in my arms, they collapse in on themselves. My face shifts with panic and I begin digging through the fabric, but it’s empty. She isn’t in there.

“Christian!” I exclaim, looking up at him, but he’s not there either. No one is. I’m alone in the room with nothing but a rumpled mess of blankets still hanging limply in my arms.

Suddenly, there’s a sharp pain in my side, strong enough to make me scream, and as I reach down to hold the place that hurts, my body jerks violently and I find myself sitting bolt upright in bed, disoriented.

The confusion has me panting to catch my breath until I reach down, feel my bump, and realize it had all been a dream. Still, just the knowledge that it didn’t happen isn’t enough to erase the lingering feeling of fear and panic from having her disappear out of my arms, so after looking over and seeing that Christian is still completely out, I crawl out of bed to use the restroom and splash some cool water on my face.

It was a dream… It was a dream…

Closing myself in the bathroom, I repeat the words over and over again, trying to get a grip on myself, but as I sit to pee and look down, a new, different wave of panic crosses over me when I see a single drop of blood staining my panties.

“Oh my god,” I whisper. I wipe and look down, finding a faint pink line of blood streaked across the toilet paper, then hurry to finish and rush out of the bathroom so I can get on my computer. My hands are shaking while I type, “bleeding late pregnancy” into Google and unfortunately, my fear is only heightened when I begin reading through the list of related conditions. The only comfort I find is a paragraph at the end of the page that says spotting during your third trimester can be completely normal, and since I have a pediatric surgeon who started her career in obstetrics coming over this morning, I force myself to stop panicking and make a mental note of the things I’ve read so I can ask her about them. Grace will calm me down much better than anything here will.

“How dare you,” Christian’s still groggy voice says behind me. I turn in my chair to look at him, my brow creased with confusion.

“How dare I, what?”

“Get out of bed. Come back to me.” He lifts the comforter back away from him, inviting me to join him, and I do. Once I’m enveloped in the blankets again, I snuggle into him, pushing as much of my body against his as possible as he wraps me back up in his arms. I hear his low moan of approval when he buries his face into my hair and while his heat washes over me, I wish desperately I could just go back to sleep and start this morning over. Unfortunately, that’s absolutely not going to happen.

“I’m bleeding,” I tell him softly.

“What? Where?” His hands move over my body, looking for an injury in my skin, but I shake my head.

“No, Christian. I’m bleeding. There was blood in my panties this morning.”

His face goes slack. “What?”

I watch him turn away from me and reach for his phone on his bedside table, but before he goes down the horrifying rabbit hole of life threatening pregnancy conditions that I just did, I reach out to touch his arm and stop him.

“Don’t look. I already did and you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do,” he corrects me. “What did you read?”

“It’s either absolutely nothing or I could be dying. There doesn’t seem to be an in between.”

“Get dressed,” he says, immediately pulling the covers away from him so he can scramble out of bed. “We’re going to the hospital. Taylor!”

“Christian, I can’t go to the hospital right now. Today is graduation.”

“I don’t care. If you need medical attention, we’re going to the hospital.”

“It could be nothing and your mom will be here in an hour. I’ll talk to her, see what she thinks and if she honestly believes I should go to the hospital, I will. But if she thinks it’s just normal spotting then I’m not going to skip out on my graduation ceremony.” He pushes his lips together, clearly not pleased with my plan, so I get out of bed and come around to wrap my arms around him and hold his gaze. “You know your mom will be overly cautious, and if she thinks we should go, we’ll go. But, really, it could be nothing, and could you imagine if I spent graduation day in the emergency room over nothing?”

“Fine,” he agrees at last. “But if she says you should go, you’re going. No arguments.”

“No arguments,” I agree. He nods and, as he leans down to kiss me on the forehead, there’s a knock on our door.

“Come,” Christian calls. Taylor steps inside.

“Sir?”

“Nevermind, Taylor,” he says, then quickly adds, “Thank you.”

“Yes, sir. Your delivery has arrived downstairs and Sawyer brought breakfast back for everyone.”

“Thank you, Taylor. We’ll be right down.” He nods and backs out of the room, and once Christian and I are alone again, an excited smile creeps across my lips as I turn to face Christian.

“Delivery?”

He smiles. “Would you mind if I give you your graduation gift early?”

“Oh, if you insist.”

 

We both hurry to dress so that we can head downstairs, and once we get to the kitchen, I find a huge arrangement of peonies in the middle of the dining room table, surrounded by an easy but delicious looking spread of fruit, croissants, and cheeses.

“They’re beautiful,” I say, turning back to smile at Christian.

“They’re only part of your gift.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small Harry Winston box. “I had this made by the same designer who did your engagement ring.”

I bite down on my lip as I take the box and slowly peel back the lid. Inside there is a gorgeous ring, not as large as my engagement ring, but not insignificant either. In the center of the platinum band is a square stone, the exact same shade as Harvard crimson, and on either side of the center gem are two diamond baguettes that sparkle in the morning sunlight pouring through the dining room window.

“Christian, it’s beautiful,” I tell him, awed. “Is it a ruby?”

“No, it’s red beryl. It’s extremely rare and at four carats, this is one of the largest beryl rings in existence. It’s very special, to celebrate your remarkable accomplishment. I’m very proud of you, Anastasia.”

I bite down on my lip to try and reign in my smile and then lean up on my toes to place a soft kiss against his lips. “I love it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. You deserve it.”

“Good morning!” Kate chirps excitedly as she comes into the kitchen behind us. “Happy graduation day!”

“Happy graduation day, Kate,” I tell her. She comes over to hug me but stops when she sees the jewelry box in my hand.

“What’s this?”

“My graduation gift from Christian.” I pass her the box and her eyes widen as she looks down at the ring inside.

“Awh, it’s like a Harvard ring. And it’s gorgeous! Good job, Grey.”

“Thanks, Kate,” he says. “And happy graduation day.”

She smiles and thanks him before moving to the breakfast spread and putting a plate together for her and Carter. Christian busies himself with Taylor and Sawyer, going over the security plan for today since Taylor is concerned about Kate and I being lost in the ocean of identical black and crimson, which could be the perfect opportunity for something to happen to either of us. I choose to let them handle the logistics. I’ll follow my instructions but I don’t want to spend any time today talking about him. Today is about me and Kate and celebrating with the people we love.

“Carter is a disaster,” Kate tells me as she pours an extra glass of orange juice. “He’s really hungover, I don’t know how he’s going to make it through graduation today.”

“Yeah, we heard you two come in last night,” I begin hesitantly. “Everything okay? It sounded like you two might have been… fighting or something?”

Kate rolls her eyes. “No, he just got too drunk with his friends. They showed up at Mac’s not long after you and Christian left and when he saw me having a beer and a conversation with Elliot, he kind of freaked out a little bit. He told Elliot to stay the fuck away from me and then dragged me home. I wish I would have listened to you and told him about Elliot sooner. The way it is now… it’s like he can’t handle that Elliot and I are friends again and that might not have been true if he didn’t think I was hiding something.”

“He didn’t…” I pause, feeling awkward. “He didn’t hurt you or anything, did he? I mean, he sounded… intense when you two came home.”

“Oh, no! God, no, Ana. We’re fine. Great even. I think graduation is just a little stressful with our families being in town. And, speaking of which, I need to go call my parents. They should be here by now.”

“Okay,” I agree reluctantly. “Tell Carter I hope he feels better.”

“I will.” She leans over to kiss me on the cheek, and then gathers the plates of food and two glasses of orange juice in her arms before turning to leave the kitchen, bouncing slightly with excitement when Luke offers her his own congratulations. I start putting together a plate for Christian and then nibble on the end of my croissant as I listen to Luke and Taylor tell me the plan for today. Just as they finish though, there’s a knock on the front door, and while the sound sends Champ into a frenzie in the entryway and fills the entire downstairs with the booming sounds of his bark,  Luke moves from the kitchen to answer it. Seconds later I hear my mother’s voice echo from the living room.

“Ana!”

“In here, Mom.”

She sweeps into the kitchen and, once she sees me, her face crinkles with mixed emotion and she wraps me in a hug.

“Oh, sweetheart, congratulations!” She pulls away and her eyes briefly flit to Christian, but they don’t exchange any words or even any real sign of recognition. I glance over my shoulder and see that Christian has turned towards us and is leaning against the counter silently, but has his arms crossed over his chest.

“Bob and I are so proud of you,” my mom continues, drawing my attention back to her. “I can’t believe we’re already here. I am definitely not old enough to have a daughter who is graduating from college.”

“You certainly don’t look it,” I reply, with a smile. “Where’s my dad?”

“Oh he and Bob are just lagging behind…” she says, but once we both look back towards the front door, we see them both appear through the arch between the kitchen and the living room.

“Daddy!” I say excitedly, untangling from my mom to rush and hug him, but even though he hugs me back, there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm behind his greeting. I pull back and give him a curious look. “Is everything okay?”

“You and I need to talk, young lady,” he says, and while I feel my own body deflate at his harsh tone, I hear Christian shift behind me.

“About what?” I ask. He glances at Christian for half a second before turning back to me.

“Let’s go to your room,” he says. I frown, but nod, slowly, and move to lead them from the kitchen to my bedroom.

“Ana…” Christian calls hesitantly. I turn back and give him the most reassuring look I can, mouthing it’s fine, and then begin my climb up the stairs. Once I’ve closed the door to my bedroom, I plop down on my bed and stare up at my father expectantly. He paces for a moment and when I see the look he gives me when he finally stops to speak, I suddenly feel more like a child than I have in years.

“Is there something you want to tell me, Anastasia?” he asks.

This is a trap, and I avoid it the same way I have since I was twelve.

“What do you mean?”

“Ana…”

“I don’t know, Dad, but obviously you do. So why don’t you just tell me what you want to talk about?”

“I want you to tell me about Elena Lincoln.”

I feel a wave of cold dread the moment her name crosses my father’s lips and, as I feel myself receding slightly under my father’s hard gaze, I gather all the confidence I can muster, lock my jaw together, and turn to glare at my mother.

“What did you tell him?”

“I don’t care what your mother has to say right now,” my dad interrupts. “I want to know what you have to say. So, tell me about Elena Lincoln.”

I take a breath. “She’s horrible person who is no longer in our lives.”

“Nope. Not good enough. Start from the beginning.” He’s angry, I can tell just by the way his mouth is set, so I know that my mother has probably spilled every detail she knows. Probably even embellished on some parts she didn’t know the whole story on with details that aren’t accurate and don’t do Christian any favors. Unfortunately though, there isn’t much I can say to alleviate whatever it is he’s feeling because there are ugly things in Christian’s past, things that neither he or I are proud of. But there’s no point in rehashing them or dwelling on them now. He’s changed and I’ve made my choices. We’re not going back.

“Dad, Christian’s history with Elena Lincoln is long and complicated and painful, but most importantly, it’s in the past. We’ve moved on, she’s behind us, and Christian and I are really, really good. Happy. He loves me, Daddy. Isn’t that eno–”

“Did he or did he not lie in a court of law to keep a child molestor from going to prison?”

“U-uh… he… It’s not as simple as that…”

“Oh, it’s exactly as simple as that. Yes, or no?” I grind my teeth together and stare up at him defiantly. This is a no win situation, so I’m not going to engage in this conversation. At least not until he’s willing to listen to the whole story, but my silence only seems to stoke his anger. “Anastasia, so help me…”

“I’m not doing this with you,” I say calmly. “I’m not doing this with either of you. Okay, I am perfectly happy to sit down with you and tell you everything that’s happened over the last few years, including everything that’s happened with Elena, but not today. I’ve worked too hard and been through too much to make today about this. So I’m not going to do this with you right now and if you can’t accept that, then you shouldn’t be here.”

“Ana, we’re just worried about you,” my mother says, and I turn to glare at her again.

“Oh yeah, you were real worried when he flew you to Seattle last summer on a private jet and hosted you on a $35 million yacht for the weekend. You showed a lot of concern when you spent a week in the most expensive hotel in Paris and went on several lavish shopping sprees all on Christian’s dime.”

“That was before we almost lost you, Anastasia.”

“But that’s not what this is about. That’s not what you told Dad. He hasn’t said anything about what happened in Seattle, this is about Elena. You brought Elena into this because you knew that would be enough to turn him against Christian. I wanted him to get to know the person Christian is now before we got into everything that’s happened with her, but you made sure that didn’t happen. You don’t care about how hard Christian and I have worked to get to where we are now, how much he’s changed, or how happy we are now. All you care about is breaking us up and I don’t know why. You’ve always been so supportive, why are suddenly being like this with Christian?”

“You could have died, Ana. Why aren’t you taking that seriously? I almost lost my daughter and it was his fault. As long as he’s in your life, you are in danger. I want you as far away from him as possible.”

“Do you really think I’ll be safe if I break up with him? That if I leave, whoever is trying to destroy Christian will just leave me and his daughter alone? Christian will never stop loving me and as long as he loves me and as long as we share a child, I will be his greatest weakness. I’ve accepted that and he is doing everything in his power to ensure that I am protected and safe. He’s uprooted his entire life and moved to Cambridge to make sure of it. I am not going to throw away the best part of my life, the person who makes me happier than anything else in the world all because some psycho out there wants his money or his company or whatever it is that he’s after. I love Christian and I’m not going anywhere. If you don’t understand that…”

“Could you?” my father interrupts me, and I turn to look at him, confused.

“Could I what?”

“Go anywhere. Leave. Because I’ve gotta say, Ana, this Elena Lincoln business isn’t the first thing that’s raised red flags for me with your boyfriend.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know you don’t think I’ve listened to you, but I have. I’ve listened to you, I’ve listened to Luke, I’ve listened to your mother… basically everyone who should have your interests at heart more than Christian’s, and I’ve gotta tell you that it worries me how controlling he seems to be with you.”

“Controlling?”

“He finds ways to make you dependent on him, baby. I saw the returned checks from Harvard when I got home and, since you’re graduating today, I know that tuition was paid. I could only assume that was him and your mother confirmed that. She told me that he did it behind your back when you were broken and you ended up taking that internship at his company last summer because you felt indebted to him. That’s how he got you back in his life after you said you wanted nothing to do with him. You came back to school after you spent the summer with him and he immediately got you pregnant, tying you to him. Even after spring break, he wouldn’t let you come back here unless he was with you. He watches everything you do and he has his people follow you wherever you go. He pays for your school, your housing, your car, your phone, all of your bills… Everything that could make you independent, he’s taken over so that you can’t leave him. That worries me, Ana.”

“You think any of that would matter if I wanted out? If I wanted to leave and Christian kicked me out of the house and cancelled all my credit cards and took back my car and turned off my phone, which he never would, I’d still have Luke. I’d still have Kate. Hell, I’d go home to you, Dad. Christian’s own family would take me in if I had nowhere to go. I’m not alone, I have a great support network. He’s not isolating me and he’s not trying to control me. My pregnancy was an accident and he pays for all of those things because he loves me and he wants to take care of me. That’s one of the ways he shows love. I promise you, Daddy. Christian is a good man. He’s never going to betray me, he’s never going to hurt me, and most importantly he makes truly happy. Why isn’t that enough for you?”

“Ray…” my mom interjects, but my dad holds up a hand to silence her.

“Carla, stop… This isn’t about you, I’m talking to my daughter right now.” He stares at me for a long time, considering me as he mulls over what I’ve just said, but before he can say anything, there’s a knock and Christian slowly opens the door.

“Ana, my mom is here,” he says uncomfortably.

“Oh, good.” I nod and turn back to my dad. “I’m sorry, I need to talk to Grace about the baby We can… finish talking about this later if we have to.”

“No, we’re not done here,” my mother says, shaking her head before turning to look at Christian. “You and your family can wait until we’re finished talking to our daughter.”

“Seriously, Carla?” Christian asks irritably. “She needs medical attention.”

“Then we’ll take her to see a real doctor when we’re finished talking.”

“Oh,” Grace says, stepping past her son to enter the room. “Now, I’m going to assume that wasn’t meant to be personal attack against me.”

My mother flinches awkwardly as she faces Grace and her cheeks pink, but as she opens her mouth to speak again, my dad cuts her off.

“Carla, for the love of god, stop. We can… we can do this later.”

My mom turns to look at him, making a sound as though she’s feeling a deep sense of betrayal from his dismissal, but when he nods toward the door, she gets out of her seat, shoots Christian one last disapproving look, and disappears into the hallway. My dad lets out a heavy breath and then comes over to wrap me in a hug.

“I love you, Annie. I hope you know that will never change. And I am so proud of you for what you’re accomplishing today.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I tell him. He turns to kiss me on the cheek, but instead of pulling away, his lips move to my ear. “I want to trust you about him. I just wish what I’ve seen matched what you’re saying.”

“Talk to him,” I plead. He nods, kisses me again, and then turns away to leave the room. Once he’s gone, Christian looks between me and his mother, then closes the door and takes me to sit on the edge of the bed next to him.

“Okay,” Grace says with a heavy sigh. “What’s going on?”

“I was bleeding this morning, and I’ve been having some cramps. Well, not cramps really. Like a… a weird um… tightening, I guess. It was a little painful though.”

“How much blood?”

“Not a lot. Just a drop.”

She nods. “And how far along are you?”

“34 weeks, yesterday.”

“Well… at 34 weeks, the tightening could just be braxton hicks contractions, which are nothing to worry about and are perfectly normal. If that’s the case, I’d say the spotting is your cervix preparing for labor.”

“But I still have more than a month to go,” I say, panicked.

“No, I know. Your cervix can begin dilating as early as 28 weeks. Some women dilate up to four centimeters very early and then end up needing to be induced. It’s very common. Also, since it’s such a small amount of blood, it’s possible the bleeding has nothing to with the baby at all and could be an injury to the vagina. Have you… um…” She glances briefly at Christian, before visibly steeling herself and allowing her completely professional demeanor to cloud over her face. “Have you recently had rough sex?”

Heat floods my face. “Oh… um…” I swallow, trying to push down the embarrassment.

She’s not Christian’s mom right now, she’s a doctor trying to take care of me and Calliope.

“Yes, last night.”

“Well, that could be the culprit and we’ll assume the best until we have reason not to. However, bleeding isn’t something we ever want to ignore in your third trimester, no matter how minor it may seem. If you’re comfortable, I can examine your cervix and make sure everything looks normal.”

“Please,” I say immediately. “I won’t be able to sit through the graduation ceremony if I think something is wrong but if we go to the emergency room, we’ll be waiting for hours and I’ll miss it all together.”

“Okay.” Grace nods. “Then go ahead and remove everything from your waist down.” I get off the bed to shimmy out of my shorts and panties, which unfortunately show a new drop of blood, while Grace pulls her bag towards her and begins rooting through it for the appropriate medical supplies. Christian holds my hand once I lie down and Grace directs me to place my feet on her knees. I take a deep breath as she leans into me.

“Alright, you’re going to feel my hand…” she warns me, and in the next second I feel her gloved fingers, slick with goo, slide inside of me. As she begins feeling around the walls of my vagina, suddenly she presses against something that stings.

“Ah!” I gasp.

“Yep, you’re scraped here,” Grace says. She pulls her fingers out of me, glances down at them, and nods. “I think this your answer.” She lifts her hand to me, and I can see the tips of the latex covering her fingers are stained red.

“Oh, thank god,” I whisper, laying back into the bed with relief.

“I’d still like you to put a menstrual pad in your underwear so we can see how much you’re bleeding throughout the day. If it’s more than a few drops after the graduation ceremony is over, I think we should take you into the emergency room where they can examine you with a speculum and maybe do an ultrasound.”

“Okay,” I agree. She pushes away from me and steps out of the room so I can get dressed. Once I’ve pulled my shorts back up over my hips, I reach out and slap Christian across the arm.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“Clip your nails,” I reply in a tight voice, and he smiles.

“Sorry.” I glare at him, trying to remain indignant, but the cocky grin on his face, which I know is because he’s thinking about the exact moment his fingers were inside of me last night, brings that very vivid memory back to me as well, and I find it impossible to stay angry. He grabs ahold of me, pulls me back on the bed, and covers my body with his.

“I love you, baby,” he whispers, and then his lips are on mine.

“Ana!” Kate calls, knocking on my door, but not waiting for a response before she opens it. When she sees the compromising position she’s found Christian and I in, she frowns and crosses her arms over her chest.

“We have to leave in an hour. You should be getting ready.”

“She’s right,” I say, frowning up at Christian, and he sighs before nodding and rolling off of me. I take his hands so he can help me get out of bed and once I’m on my feet, Kate’s all business again.

“Which of these says ‘that’s right I’m the Harvard graduating class valedictorian and I’m hot as hell’ to you more?” She twists so that my focus shifts down to her shoes, the only part of her outfit that will show beneath her robe, and I smile at both pairs of sky high stilettos she’s picked out.

“I’d go with the caged sandals,” I tell her. “I think the swarovski crystals on the platform heels might be a little much.”

“If you say so,” she replies, clearly disappointed, and then she lifts her glasses, which she would normally refuse to be seen in public in, to her face. “Too much?”

I laugh. “Only if you don’t want to start a sex riot.”

“You’re right, better safe than sorry.” She smiles as she pulls them away from her face, but when she turns to leave the room, she stops and then rushes back to me to pull me into a very jarring hug.

“Kate!” I cough.

“Oh, sorry. The closer we get to leaving I’m just… Ana, can you believe this is finally happening? I mean, this is it. We made it!”

“We sure did,” I giggle. We beam at each other, the excitement growing more and more apparent on our faces the longer it goes on, until finally, Christian coughs behind me.

“Ana, you needed to get ready, remember?”

“Yeah,” I nod, and then let out a long, calming breath. “I’ll see you when it’s time, Katie.” She shrieks, her face lighting up, and then quickly scampers out of the room, leaving me laughing as I turn for the bathroom.

 

It’s packed when we get to Tercentenary Theater and as I glance over the ubiquitous sea of black and red mulling through the trees and over the sidewalks, the nerves I haven’t felt all morning suddenly peak.

This is actually happening.

“I think this is where we have to leave you, Annie,” my dad says. “Knock ‘em dead kid.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” I reply, and then hug him as tightly as I can. My mother is next, offering her own last bits of congratulations before she passes me to Bob, then Carrick, Grace, Elliot, and Mia. Finally, I slip into Christian’s arms and he leans down to press his lips against mine in a slow, tender kiss.

“Good luck,” he whispers, and then pulls back to look down at me with mirth. “Don’t fall.”

“Thanks,” I reply, deadpan, but when I narrow my eyes at him, he leans down to kiss me one last time, places the graduation cap that says For Calliope on top of my head, and tells me he loves me one last time. As I watch him turn and follow his family to the chairs placed in perfect lines at the back of the yard, I feel Luke slip his arm through mine.

“Ready?” he asks. I take a deep breath and nod. “Then let’s do this thing.”

 

The ceremony is long, and sitting under the hot May sun while I’m just a week shy of eight months pregnant has me regretting the floor length summer dress I chose to wear under my graduation robe. We listen to speeches from the President of the University, the President of Liberia, who is our keynote speaker this year, the Dean of Students, and finally Kate. I don’t know how she does it, but as she steps up to the podium and stares out at the hundreds of people waiting for her to speak, she’s the picture of serenity. She even pauses before she begins speaking as if she’s taking a moment to bask in the spotlight.

Strangely, I haven’t heard her speech yet. I’d half expected her to ask me listen to her rehearsing a hundred times over the last few weeks, but she never did, so I’m unprepared for the emotion her words bring out of me. She’s funny and clever, of course, but as she gets into the real substance of her speech and begins talking about inspiration, she tells us all about how selfish she had been when she first came to Harvard University. How she’d felt entitled to her education because her father had it, because she’d grown up in a Crimson sweatshirt, but that she never truly understood the gift that being here really was until she saw the names of Deacon Bryer, Constance Ledbetter, Lydia Robinson, Elizabeth Cook, Officer Todd Stoneburner, and Officer Christopher Haddock carved into headstones. She explains that these were the people who died her freshman year when she was the victim of a violent attack and how from that day forward, they became her inspiration to be as great as she could be. At the end of her speech, she dedicates her words and her time at Harvard to them, promising never to forget as she moves on to the next phase of life.

I wipe a tear away as my fellow classmates burst into applause around me and then slowly get to my feet to applaud her as she takes her seat on the stage next to the President of the University. Once the applause dies down, they invite the first wave of students to rise from their seats and to come forward and accept their degrees.

It’s interesting, listening to the list of names being called. Even once my row is summoned, the wait in line doesn’t seem so long as I watch people I’ve had with me on this remarkable journey for the last four years take their degrees and shake hands with the most important people at Harvard University. There’s a few people I haven’t seen or thought about in years, and as I watch the joy on their faces while they march across the steps at the head of the yard, I find myself wishing I hadn’t let so many relationships go through the natural course of time.

“Graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Arts Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, Miss Anastasia Rose Steele.”

The applause that breaks out after my name is called has my face split into a grin so wide, my cheeks hurt by the time I’ve accepted the leather binder and shaken the hands of everyone in the long line. When I make it down the final step, I glance out in the crowd and am able to pick out my dad, still standing a few rows back into the family section, and the look of sheer pride on his face sends another wave of emotion over me that’s too strong to hold back.

It’s official.

I am a Harvard Graduate.

 

There’s one last speech after all the degrees have been given out, and once we are declared the graduating class of 2011, applause breaks out and hundreds of caps are thrown into the air. Luke takes my hand while everyone around me begins milling their way back towards their families, and as I pull out my phone to try and coordinate with my own loved ones, I’m surprised by a strong pair of arms wrapping around me.

“You did it, Annie!” my dad exclaims. I turn to face him, noticing how swollen and red his eyes are, and then quickly wrap him back in a hug.

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Daddy. Thank you for everything you’ve given me. Everything you’ve done for me….”

“You did it on your own,” he cuts me off. “You did it with that brilliant mind of yours. Oh, I am so proud of you!”

I giggle as he sweeps me off my feet and then turn to hug my mother.

“Congratulations, sweetheart,” Bob says, and I smile as I thank him.

I’m passed again through all the Greys, Carrick holding me the longest as he welcomes me into the very proud tradition of being a Harvard Alumnus. The pride and joy I feel radiating from my family has me simultaneously laughing and crying, and while I wrap my arms around Christian’s neck and kiss him as deeply as I can, I think to myself that, selfishly, I wish Kate hadn’t broken up with Elliot. If she was here, this moment would be the most perfect moment of my life. As it is, it feels incomplete.

Then, my phone begins vibrating in my hand, and I wonder briefly if maybe Kate can read my mind. Maybe she’s looking for us too.

“Hello,” I answer, still beaming.

“Hello, Anastasia,” a cold male voice responds. “Congratulations, and can I say how beautiful you look today? I especially love the red ring on your right hand. That must have set Christian back a pretty penny.”

I freeze, feeling every ounce of joy radiating through me vanish, and immediately glance up at Christian with wide, terrified eyes. “Who is this?”

“Oh, you know who this is, Anastasia. Let’s not waste time pretending.”

Christian furrows a brow at me and I begin nodding frantically at him, pointing at the phone with shaking hands. It takes a moment, but eventually realization dawns on him and he begins waving for Taylor and Luke to rejoin us.

“Oh good, your security is on the way. Let’s make this quick, shall we?” Taylor comes up next to us and Christian quickly explains who I’m on the phone with.

He’s here,” I mouth, and all three of them begin looking around the open yard frantically.

“They’re looking the wrong way,” the harsh voice says in my ear. “Tell them to turn around.”

I turn in the opposite direction that Christian, Taylor, and Luke are looking and begin scanning the crowd, focusing on each face and taking in every detail, but I don’t see anyone I recognize.

“Hello, Anastasia,” the voice says, and a chill runs down my spine as I realize I must have glanced over him.

“Here,” Luke says, pulling a small plastic box tangled in a long wire out of his jacket. “We can record what he’s saying, just keep him on the phone.”

I nod and take a deep breath to work up the courage to continue this conversation. “Well, you’ve got me on the phone. What do you want?”

“Ana, it’s your graduation. This is about what you want. I’d like to give you a gift.”

“You think I want a gift from you?”

“There has to be something…”

“I just want you to leave us alone, that’s it. I don’t want anything else from you.”

“Oh, I don’t know if that’s true. What about…. Leila Williams?”

I freeze and feel my mouth go dry. “Leila Williams?” I repeat, looking back pointedly at Christian. “You have Leila?”

“Yes,” the voice replies.  Luke steps close to me, the wire connected to the recorder in his hand, and he begins fumbling with the charging jack where I think he wants to plug the device in.

“How do I know that’s true? How do I know you really have her?”

“That’s my gift, I’m going to give her to you. I just need to know which part you want.”

“Excuse me?”

“Which part would you like? I’ll let you choose. I have to warn you though, some of her was… damaged in the process.”

My blood runs cold and I’m left momentarily speechless. It feels as though all the breath has been sucked out of me as I process what he’s said.

“Got it,” Luke says, giving a thumbs up to Taylor, and as he turns to nod to me, I realize I’m supposed to speak again, get him talking.

“Is she dead?” I ask, my voice quivering now as I feel the sting of tears behind my eyes, and he lets out a low, humorless laugh.

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

The phone goes dead and immediately, my breath begins to push out of me in horrible, gut wrenching gasps. “He’s here… he’s here…” I stutter. “He’s been the reception hall, he can see us right now.”

“He could be lying,” Taylor points out. “He could be miles away, or maybe waiting for us to leave. He could be trying to scare her by telling her he can see her as a ploy to drive her away from the crowd.”

I shake my head. “He talked about my ring. He can see me.”

“Then let’s get you out of here,” Christian says. “Not to the graduation party, home. Find the Kavanaghs and tell them to meet us there. Taylor, I want your entire team securing that house. Lock it down.”

“Yes, sir.” Taylor pulls out his phone while Luke takes my arm and begins pulling Christian and I away from our family.

“Meet us at home,” I shout back to my father as he watches us disappear through the crowd with wide, worried eyes. I can see Carrick gathering Grace and Mia, even my mother, and pushing them towards the parking lot as Kommer and Cardella close in around us, but while I feel better that Christian and I are completely surrounded by security, I don’t like that everyone else I love is exposed. What if he goes after Grace… or Mia… or my Mom? Is Harrison with Kate? I don’t know, I haven’t seen her since the ceremony ended…

“Christian, what about everyone else?” I ask as we stop at my Lexus in the parking lot. “We can’t just leave…”

“They know where we’re going and they’ll meet us there. Right now, I have to get you out of here.”

My hands move down to my belly, protectively shielding my bump as best I can while I scan the lot around us for the Grey’s rental car, but when I don’t find it, I nod and take Christian’s hand as he helps me into the car. Before I’m able to turn and settle into the seat though, I feel a sharp pang of pain in my stomach.

“Ah!” I cry out, and the worry already so apparent on Christian’s face becomes more pronounced.

“What’s wrong?”

I shake my head dismissively. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Just another cramp.”

“Well… sit down. This stress isn’t good for you. You need to lay down when we get home.” I nod and then reach for my seatbelt, buckling it as we begin pulling away from the curb.

It takes a long time to get out of the parking lot, and because our car has been idling for so long, giving us ample time to be found, Taylor takes a very convoluted way home in case we’re being watched. We change directions several times, follow cars that look like ours only to turn away unexpectedly and head in the opposite direction. By the time he finally pulls into the driveway at the house, everyone else is already here. Christian quickly pulls me from the back seat of the Lexus and drags me inside. As Luke closes the door and begins locking us safely inside, Cardella leaving to stand at the front door while Kommer takes up post at the back, Taylor pulls out of the driveway and turns down the street again.

“Ana? Christian?” Kate calls, Champ’s paws scratching over the hardwood behind her, and when she comes into the kitchen and sees us standing there, she exhales with relief and walks forward to hug me. “What’s going on? Harrison wouldn’t tell us anything, just that we couldn’t go to the arts center.”

Harrison was with her. Good.

“He was there,” I say my voice still shaking. “He called me right after the ceremony and told me he’d killed Leila. Oh my god, Christian… Leila’s dead. It’s my fault. She saved me and now she’s… oh my god!” I break down and Christian immediately pulls me into his arms.

“Hush, baby. It’s not your fault. Thank god she saved you, but she made the choice to get involved with this fucker in the first place. We tried to find her. She should have come to us. It’s not your fault.”

I shake my head. “She said we couldn’t keep her safe. She said he’d get to her, that he’d eventually get to me. She said we were never going to be safe.”

“Hey, you’re safe right now. I’ve got you, no one is going to hurt you.”

I nod into his suit jacket, but when I take a deep breath to try and calm myself, I feel the sharp pang in my side again. “Ah! Fuck…”

“Baby…”

“It’s just… ah, cramps again.”

“Come on. Let’s get you to the couch.” He tucks me under his arm and leads me into the living room, with Kate and Luke trailing behind us, and once we make it out of the kitchen the eyes of everyone in mine, Christian’s, and Kate’s families turn to look at us expectantly.

“What’s going on? Why are we here?” Kate’s father asks. “I thought we’d reserved the arts center for Katherine and Ana’s party?”

“It’s not safe,” Christian says, and then turns to his family. “He’s here.”

“What?” Grace gasps. “Here? How?”

“I don’t know,” Christian says. My dad gets out of the chair he’s sitting in and rushes to me, taking me from Christian and holding me tightly as I hold back tears for Leila.

“Are you okay, baby girl?” he asks, and I nod because I don’t want to admit how devastated I really am. Especially not in front of my mother, who is shaking her head in the corner like she’s been expecting something like this to happen all day.

“So we can’t go there at all?” Mia asks. “What about the gifts? Taylor took the presents we got for Ana and Kate over there already.”

“And Carter was going to meet us there,” Kate adds worriedly.

“Taylor is on route to the arts center to collect Ana and Kate’s things,” Luke says. “I’m sorry, but in light of the phone call Miss Steele received, he’s going to have to open and examine all of the gifts for anything dangerous. But, I’m sure if he sees Mr. Reed, he’ll direct him here.”

Kate nods, and as I twist out of my father’s arms to return to Christian, he leans down, kisses my hair, and tugs me so that I turn for the stairs.

“I think you should lay down for a few minutes, at least until Taylor gets back. This is too much stress right now.”

I nod and give Kate what I hope is a reassuring smile as she looks away from the open blinds she’s peeking through to me, and then allow Christian to lead me up the stairs. Once I’m in bed, he gets me a cool cloth to lay over my eyes and then massages my feet, calves, and hands until I’m completely calmed. And while my body relaxes, so do the random cramps in my side.

Luke comes to get us after about half an hour when Taylor gets back, and once he verifies that Carter came back with him, I make sure to stop at Kate’s room, where she apparently disappeared to in order to get a moment to decompress by herself while I was laying down.

“Kate,” I say, but when I open the door I’m surprised to find that she isn’t alone. She’s standing in front of the bed, so close to Elliot they’re practically touching, and he’s looking down at her like he’s seconds away from lunging for her lips. Once they turn and see me though, they spring apart.

“I’m sorry, I just… I wanted to tell you that Carter’s here,” I say awkwardly.

“Thanks,” Kate says, and then she turns to look up at Elliot again. When their eyes meet, there’s pain on Kate’s face.

“I can’t,” she whispers, turning away and moving past Christian and I. Elliot’s body deflates as he stands there, in the room that used to be his, and stares blankly at the wall in front of him, not looking either me or Christian.

“We’re going to open gifts,” Christian says. “Join us when you’re ready.”

He nods, still not turning to look at us, so Christian pulls me out of the room and then silently holds me as we head downstairs.

I’m given a place of honor on the couch next to Kate as we pass the rumped gift bags and paperless packages to one another. Once again, I’m overwhelmed by the extravagance of the gifts I unwrap, even from my mother and father who gift me a very old ring that had belonged to my grandma Steele.

“Here,” Carter says, picking up a package next to Kate and passing it to me. “This one is for you.”

“From me,” Kate adds. I smile and open the hinged lid hid to the small white box she passes me. Inside there is necklace with a delicate gold chain and small diamond encrusted H pendant.

“I have one too,” she explains. “They’re custom made, so there are only two of them. I thought it would be a good way to remember that you and I shared this together.”

“I love it, Katie,” I tell her. “And I’m so glad you’re the one I did this with.” She smiles and reaches over to hug me, and as I struggle again to hold back tears, I pull away and turn to Christian.

“Will you hand me Kate’s gift please?”

He reaches for the book sitting at the foot of his chair and passes it to me so I can hand it to her. “I’m sorry, the lack of wrapping kind of ruins it…”

“A scrapbook?” she asks, opening the front cover.

“Mhm. Of all four years we spent here. I’ve been working on it for months.”

“Look, our first football game!” she exclaims as she turns to the first page. “And halloween…. Oh my god, Vegas! Will you look at that hair? What were we thinking?”

“That the only way to make it through sin city is to get as close to God as possible,” I laugh, looking down at our overly teased hair. She laughs and flips to the next page, filled with pictures that Mia took of her and Elliot, and Christian and I at the cabin in Aspen. She looks at the photos for a long time, almost longingly, then closes the book and turns to me.

“You’re amazing. I’m going to cherish this forever. Thank you, Ana.”

“You’re welcome, Katie. I’ll be at your house every year on this day and we’ll crack open a bottle of wine and look at those photos together.”

“It’s a date.” I lean in and hug her, and when we pull away from one another, a markedly less enthused Carter glances around the room.

“Anyone else?”

“Yeah,” a voice says behind us, and we turn to see Elliot standing at the bottom of the stairs. “I’ve got one more.” He reaches into the pocket of his jacket, pulls out a black velvet box, and hands it to Kate. She eyes it suspiciously for a moment then pulls back the lid to reveal a pair of spectacular diamond studs.

“Elliot,” Kate gasps. “I-I… I can’t accept this.”

He shakes his head. “I bought them a long time ago, three years ago, actually. When you left San Francisco while I was still at Stanford. We were fighting when you left because I was mad you’d spent so much of your visit doing homework. We weren’t even talking when I dropped you off at the airport, but when I got back to my apartment… I found that you’d left this note on my pillow.”

He pulls a very crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, and when he hands it to her, I’m able to read what it says over his shoulder.

 

I’m sorry I didn’t have much time this weekend, but I hope you’ll forgive me and that you’ll be proud when all this hard work means I graduate Valedictorian. I love you, El. -Katie

 

“I bought those earrings that day and I vowed to give them to you when you proved yourself right. And you did. Congratulations, Katie.”

She smiles and looks down at the earrings in her hand. “Thank you, Elliot. They’re beautiful.”

“You’re welcome. You deserve it, Kate. You deserve everything.”

They stare at each other again and, once more, the intensity of their gaze is palpable. An awkward silence falls over the room and when I hear Carter shifting in his chair like he’s going to get up, I try to head off any argument or fight that may be about to happen, by getting out of my seat, pulling Kate with me, and moving to hug the person nearest to me, which happens to be Grace.

“Thank you so much for your gifts, Grace. It means the world to me that you’re here with me today.”

“Of course, dear.” She smiles as she hugs me once more, and suddenly the room is filled with movement as everyone gets up to give their love to both me and Kate. I’m just released by Mrs. Kavanagh though when Carter calls everyone’s attention.

“I have a gift too,” he says. We turn to face him but his eyes focus only on Kate, and when he walks to her, he takes her by the hand and stands so that he’s facing her. “Kate, a lot of great things have happened to me while I was here at Harvard. But nothing has been as great as these last few months with you. You’re smart, witty, fun… and the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. I love you, Katherine Kavanagh, and I want to love you for the rest of my life.” He reaches into the pocket of his slacks and pulls out his own black velvet box, but when he hands it to her, he sinks down on one knee. “Will you marry me?”

Her mouth drops open and she stares down at the princess cut diamond framed against the royal blue silk inside the box with shock. I watch her chest begin to heave and her body begins to shake, but before she can say anything, I feel a sharp rip of pain, a hundred times more intense than anything I’ve felt today, in my side, followed by a rush of liquid pouring down the inside of my leg. I scream and, immediately, Christian is at my side.

“Ana?”

I try to answer him, but the pain is so intense, it’s difficult to breathe, let alone talk. His hands wrap around my upper arms to hold me up as my body begins to slump over and I cry out again, the movement intensifying the pain.

“I–I think my water just broke,” I’m able to pant, and Christian’s eyes widen.

“What?”

I reach down and gather the lengths of my skirt, but when I quickly yank the fabric up to my knees, it’s not clear amniotic fluid I see pooling in the carpet at my feet. It’s blood.

A lot of it.

A strangled kind of noise resulting from the mix of fear and pain escapes my throat, and when I look up at Christian again, I see that the panic on his face has been replaced with horror. But there’s nothing I can do or say to him because in that moment, as the dark crimson dripping down my legs begins to spread and seep further into the rug around my feet, my vision goes black and everything around me melts away.  

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 33

fifty-shades-of-grey-vancouver-10

I’m very emotional the day of my last final and it has nothing to do with my pregnancy. Each exam I’ve completed, each professor who has wished me luck as I left their room for the last time, it’s all been a part of the long, drawn out countdown of my last days of Harvard. And now that the true final day is here, all I want is to go back. To stay a little while longer. This place has changed me, given me everything, and I’ve fought for it. Beyond the countless hours of studying and the dozens of sleepless nights I’ve suffered through when the workload was overwhelming, it seems like the odds that I’d make it here have been constantly stacked against me. But I never gave up. I got here. I’m graduating tomorrow. There’s only one test left between me and my degree and the enormity of the life change that’s about to occur, has had me breaking down all morning.

I wipe a tear away as Luke helps me out of the back of the Lexus so that we can make our way into the Baker Center for the last time.

“Good luck, Ana!” Kommer calls to me from the driver’s seat, and I turn to wave to him before we head into the building. When I get to class, the atmosphere around me is electric. The perfect warm days we’ve been having mixed with the tangible sense of freedom in the air has everyone in such a good mood that even the notoriously difficult exams Dr. Boylston gives can’t dampen anyone’s excitement. I even receive a few smiles and waves from people I’ve been in classes with for multiple semesters but who have mostly been scared off by Luke and Kommer’s constant presence around me the last few months.

“Alright, settle down!” Dr. Boylston says as he enters the room and hands a stack of exams to the person sitting in the front right desk. “All exams must be completed in a University issued blue book, and if I see any cell phones out, I’ll collect your test and excuse you from the rest of the exam. You have 90 minutes. Good luck.”

Luke winks at me as I pick up my pen and begin reading through the first essay question. The exam is complicated and each question requires so many pages to fully respond, that my biggest concern suddenly becomes the 90 minute time limit. I glance up at the clock every few minutes, pushing my pen across the paper as quickly as I can, but as the 89th minute ticks by, I place my last period on the page.

“Done,” I say, relieved, and as I stare down at the words scrawled across the paper, the finality of that word really hits me.

Done.

I’m done.

“Congratulations, Ana,” Luke smiles at me. “Now, come on. Your family will be here soon to celebrate.”

I nod, get out of my seat, and take my exam to my professor. He smiles as he takes it, wishes me a good summer and a safe delivery, and after shaking my hand, I turn and leave the room knowing I’ll never come back again.

Once we get outside, it’s like I’m seeing campus for the first time. It’s like I’ve forgotten how beautiful it really was and while we make our way into the car, I find that I can’t look away from any of it. Even as Kommer pulls into the street, I turn to stare out the back window and continue to watch until the last of the buildings completely disappear from view.

I can’t believe it’s really over or how much I already miss this place, and I haven’t even actually left yet.

“I’m just dropping you off,” Kommer tells us as he turns onto our street. “Mr. Grey’s plane should be landing within the next thirty minutes and the traffic reports aren’t good.”

“That’s fine,” Luke says, and when the car stops, he quickly jumps out of the passenger’s seat to help me out of the back.

Now that we’ve finally made it to graduation, most of my house is packed away in boxes, ready to be loaded into a truck on Sunday and shipped back to Seattle, where it will be stored until Kate closes on the apartment she’s currently stuck in escrow with. It has most of the living room blocked off, which is fine because I need to get upstairs and into the shower so I can get ready for dinner with Christian’s family anyway.  As I make my way past the dining room though, which Christian is using as an office today, I glance over and see him on the phone, but looking up at me and waving me in.

“No, that all sounds fine. Can you hold just a moment, Ros?” He pulls the phone away and looks at me expectantly. “How’d it go?”

“Really good. Kommer is on his way to pick your family up from the airport so I’m just going to jump in the shower real quick.”

“Do you want me to join you?” he asks suggestively, and I smile but shake my head.

“And face the wrath of Ros Bailey? No, thank you.”

“Okay, I’ll be done soon.” I nod and turn for the stairs, but he calls out to stop me again. “Ana?”

“Yeah?”

“You did it. Congratulations, baby.”

“Thank you,” I say, my smile widening, and as he returns to his phone call, I start up the stairs two at a time.

Apparently Kommer was right about traffic because even though it takes me over an hour to get fully ready, the Greys still haven’t arrived by the time I get downstairs. Kate and Carter are home though, so I perch myself on the kitchen counter while they talk about their last finals, judging how they think they did.

“Whatever, it’s done,” Carter says irritably after complaining about a particularly terrible exam. “And once I’m done having dinner tonight with my family, I’m going to drink away every memory I have of these last two weeks.”

“Every memory?” Kate checks, and Carter smiles at her.

“Well, maybe not every memory…” He pulls her against him, making her squeal, and the affection between the two of them makes me smile. It also reminds me that Christian is still working rather than hanging out with us, but as I look back towards him, I’m distracted from my dissatisfaction by the sight of my Lexus in the driveway, which I can see through the dining room window.

“Ana!” Mia shouts as she comes through the front door, so I quickly jump down from the counter to scurry from the kitchen to the living room. The moment she sees me, her face breaks into a huge smile.

“Hey, Meems!” I laugh as I wrap my arms around her, squeezing her tightly while I shift her from side to side. “How was your prom?”

“Great, except that Pippa Conrad won prom queen and now she walks around like she’s queen of the world or something. I’m starting to see why Christian liked fighting so much in high school. Man, I’d love to punch her in the eye.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Christian says coming up behind me. “It was always a hassle having to start over at new schools all the time.”

“I love how that’s what you focus on,” she says, rolling her eyes, and she releases me to go to him.

“Hello, Darling!” Grace coos as she comes through the doorway with Carrick and Elliot in tow. “Congratulations, we are so proud of you.”

“Thank you, Grace.”

“How’s the baby? Has the third trimester been tough?”

“A little, but I’m managing. Your son has been a tremendous help getting me through everything.”

“I doubt that,” Elliot says, replacing his mother and hugging me tightly to him. “Christian’s always been more of a nuisance than a help.”

“To you maybe,” I laugh. I reach up to flick him on the forehead and while he takes a moment to look at me as though he can’t believe my audacity, eventually his open mouth breaks into a grin and he hugs me once more.

“It’s so good to see you. It’s not the same back home without you and Christian around.”

“Well, you’ve only got a couple more days,” I assure him, gesturing to the moving boxes and then stepping to the side so that I can greet Carrick. But when I see what he’s wearing, I stop, and feel my lips press together in a pout as a sudden wave of emotion hits me.

“Do you like it?” he asks, twisting from side to side to model his My Daughter is a Harvard Graduate t-shirt. “I had enough made so that I can wear a different color every day we’re here.”

I cover my hand with my mouth as my bottom lip begins to tremble. “I love it. I really love it. Thanks… Dad.”

He smiles and pulls me into a tight hug.

“Oh my god, Kate!” Mia squeals. I turn around and see that Kate and Carter have joined us in the entryway, and now Mia is clinging excitedly around her middle.

“Meems!” she exclaims, mirroring her excitement.

“Mom didn’t know if you were going to be here or with your own family. I’m so glad you are!”

“You didn’t think I’d let you sneak through here without saying hello, did you?”

“Of course not,” Grace says, stepping forward to hug her. “It’s so good to see you, dear.”

“You too, Grace,” Kate replies, groaning as she squeezes Grace as tightly as she can. “You too.” Grace twists her head to kiss Kate on the cheek and as she steps back, Carrick moves forward to take her place.

“That is a great shirt,” Kate laughs, and Carrick smiles.

“Thank you. There was a time when I’d hoped I could make one that said daughters.” Her face falters slightly, but she recovers her smile when she steps forward to hug him, and as his arms close around her, Carter coughs behind them.

“Carter,” Carrick says. “Good to see you again.”

“Mr. Grey,” Carter replies. He holds out his hand and they shake, but once he releases Carrick’s hand, he moves straight past Grace and Mia to Elliot.

“Hey, man. How’s it going?” Elliot asks, reaching out to shake his hand as well. Carter glances down at it, hesitating for a moment, before he finally reaches forward and grips his fingers with an excessive amount of force. I bite my lip as I turn to look at Christian. Kate told Carter last week that she and Elliot had started texting again, and as a result, Elliot’s imminent arrival has been the subject of a lot of stress for her. Apparently, Carter hasn’t lost any of his possessive nature in the three years since he and I broke up. No ultimatums have been made, but his general attitude about Kate spending time with Elliot is not something he’s hidden.

“Elliot,” Carter says tersely. “It’s good of you to come and support Ana. I know it means a lot to her.”

“Well, she’s my sister so…” he replies awkwardly, and when Carter releases his hand, he immediately begins flexing his fingers. Carter gives him a tight smile and then turns back to Kate.

“Well, baby, I better go. My parents are going to be arriving soon and they’re going to want to get dinner as quickly as possible.”

“Okay, have fun. Send your mom my love,” Kate says. She moves past Grace so she can kiss him good-bye, but Carter doesn’t go in for a polite, chaste peck. He pulls her tightly into his body and brings his lips to hers in a deep passionate kiss that is clearly meant to make a statement. Especially when he rolls his face to the opposite side of hers and we all see his tongue moving through her mouth.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he tells her, and she nods. “Have a good night, baby. I’ll miss you.”

“You too,” Kate says, and with one last kiss on the tip of her nose, he turns to leave.

“Well, we should be thinking about dinner, too,” Grace says, breaking the awkward silence that lingers after Carter’s exit. “It’s starting to get late, I imagine Christian and Ana are starving.”

“I’ve made reservations at The Table,” Christian says. “And, since graduation is tomorrow, we should hurry. It’s most likely going to be very crowded.”

“Do you have plans with your family tonight, Kate?” Carrick asks. She shakes her head.

“No, my family won’t be here until tomorrow.”

“So why didn’t you go with Carter?” Elliot asks.

“Oh, his family is… um. They’re just about their family. It’s okay though. I’m just going to stay in tonight and polish my speech. Make sure I’m ready to knock ‘em dead tomorrow.”

“Absolutely not,” Grace says. “We’re not leaving you here alone on the eve of the most important day of your life so far. You should be celebrating! You’ll come to dinner with us.”

“Oh… I don’t want to intrude.”

“You’re never an intrusion, my dear. Come, I won’t hear another word about it.” Grace sweeps her arm out to gesture her through the front door, and Kate smiles before wrapping an arm over Mia’s shoulder to walk with her out to the car.

“See you there?” Elliot asks, looking to Christian and me as he turns to follow his parents.

“We’ll be right behind you,” Christian affirms, but once Elliot leaves and closes the door behind him, Christian’s hands are suddenly on me, pulling me flush against his body so he can take my lips with his.

“Alone at last. You know this is the first time I’ve had you all to myself in three days?” He kisses me again, and reaches down for the hem of my dress.

“Hold on there,” I tell him, but even when I pull away from his kiss, his lips simply move down past my jaw. “Christian! You’re family is already on the way to the restaurant, we don’t have time for any funny business.”

“I know,” he says, continuing to suck lightly on my neck. “I just want you prepared for what’s in store for you tonight. When I finally get you all to myself, for real, I want you ready for me.”

“Ready, huh?”

He leans back and wags his eyebrows at me once. “Really ready. Should I go get the Ben Wa balls?”

“You have them here?”

“Oh, baby. I’ll never go anywhere without them again. I love what they do to you.” I moan as he leans in to kiss my neck again, but as I feel myself begin to melt in his strong arms and my already fragile self-control starts to wane, I force myself to push away from him.

“We have to go. You and your silver balls will just have to wait.”

“If you say so.” His smile is mischievous, and while I stare back at him suspiciously, he kisses me one last time before taking my hand and leading me through the back doors where our security team is waiting by the car.

 

Christian was right, The Table is extremely crowded. The line going out the front door wraps around the side of the restaurant for a whole block and every parking place within close distance is filled. Taylor circles the block to let us out near the door so, while Christian, Luke, and I head inside, he can find parking on the next block over.

“Do you have a reservation?” the overly flustered hostess asks once we’ve fought our way inside.

“Grey,” Christian replies. “I believe the rest of our party has already arrived.”

Relief crosses her face as she nods, probably because she can actually help us instead of telling us how long we’re going to have to wait or turning us away. She says something into the microphone on her headset and a few seconds later another girl appears to lead us to a private dining room at the back of the restaurant where Kate and Christian’s family are already seated, laughing together as they glance over the menus.

“Over here, Ana!” Mia says, pointing to the open seat on her right. Christian takes my hand and leads me to her, pulling my chair out for me, and as I sit down, I glance over to see that Kate is seated on her left, next to Elliot, and the two of them seem to be having a conversation all their own. I pick up my own menu and start glancing through the entrees but Christian doesn’t touch his. Instead, he leans over towards me, like he’s going to share mine, but as I tilt the stiff paper towards him, his hand slides up my inner thigh under the table and disappears beneath my dress.

“What do you want, baby?” he asks, his voice laced with double entendre, and I swallow hard.

“Uh… a salad, I think.”

“Something, light? That surprises me. I thought you’d want something much more…” his breath hisses between his teeth as his finger slip beneath my panties, low enough that only I can hear. “Exotic.”

My thighs clench together and I bite down on my bottom lip to suppress a moan as his fingers begin to toy with my clitoris beneath the table. I take a breath and turn the page. “Filet Mignon then. If I’m going to splurge, I want it to be… excellent.

“Mmm,” he hums. “Excellent does sound right on par for tonight. I’ll have the same.”

“You do that,” I laugh, but the sound is cut off by a surprised gasp when he very suddenly pushes one of his fingers inside of me and then presses firmly against the front wall of my vagina as he pulls it out.

“Ana?” Kate asks, turning a concerned look on me. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah.” My voice is too high. “I just need some water.”

Christian smirks as he pulls away, and while I set my menu down, take a sip of water, and try to re-engage with the conversation around the table, he subtly lifts his finger to his mouth and sucks on the end. When I turn to look at him, he licks his bottom lip and wags his eyebrows again.

Thankfully the waiter comes in then, so I’m given respite from his very erotic distractions.

“So, Ana, how did finals go?” Carrick asks, once we’ve placed our orders.

“Good. I have one that I’m worried about. My Trans-Reformation English Writing professor was the only professor who wouldn’t let me make up for the work I’d missed after spring break, or after the two doctors appointments I had that conflicted with his class. So I have a B. I had to get an A on the final to keep my 4.0 average and Dr. Weisberg grades particularly tough. And, he doesn’t submit his grades until the last possible minute so I won’t get to know how I did until 8 o’clock tonight.”

“That’s just horrible,” Grace says. “Why on earth would he refuse to allow you to make up what you’d missed after hearing what had happened to you?”

Kate snorts. “You’d be surprised. The prestige and power placed upon some of the professors here give them such a complex that they liken a student missing their lectures to a crime against God. I had to appeal to the dean of students for the same type of behavior when I was laid up after my surgery last January, even though I had special permission from the University to take my classes from home until I’d been cleared by my doctors to return to campus.”

“You had surgery in January?” Grace asks, and Kate’s face goes blank.

“Oh… I… Uh…”

“She was in a skiing accident,” Christian says quickly. “With her friends from New York.”

“Right,” Kate agrees. “Yeah, I had a bad fall and I had to have surgery.”

“You didn’t tell me that,” Elliot says, his voice colored with concern, and as she shrugs, Grace shakes her head and turns to Carrick.

“Well, it seems like our family had a lot of bad luck needing surgeries this winter, but I’m glad you and Carrick both came out for the better. In fact, didn’t you have something you wanted to tell Christian, dear?”

Christian looks up at his father, who smiles. “I completed my last scheduled round of chemo last week and we had a new scan done a few days ago. It came up clean. I’m officially in remission.”

“What?” Christian repeats, in disbelief.

“I’m cancer free.”

“Dad.” He sounds breathless as he quickly jumps out of his seat and walks around the table towards his father. The moment Carrick stands, Christian pulls him into a tight embrace. Grace laughs happily and Mia reaches over to squeeze my arm, but even though I hear Kate get out of her seat so she can hug Carrick as well, I can’t move. I can’t do anything, I can’t even breathe. My throat goes painfully dry, tears spring to my eyes, and before I know what’s happening, I burst into deep, gut wrenching sobs.

“Ana,” Elliot says, getting up and moving past Mia so that he can pull me into his chest. “It’s alright. This is good news.”

“It’s amazing,” I choke out. “I’m sorry, this isn’t the right reaction. I’m just overwhelmed. I’m so relieved, for you, for Christian, for Calliope, for everyone at this table.” My voice cuts off as another sob works its way out of my chest and Carrick releases Kate, who also has tears in her eyes, to come and wrap me in a hug. “I’m so happy Calliope is going to have you in her life,” I whisper to him. “You’re going to be an amazing grandfather, Carrick.”

“Well, she’s one of the most important reasons I fought through this,” he says. “Because I really can’t wait to hold that little girl in my arms.” He kisses me on the cheek and then passes me back to Christian, who holds me so tightly, it’s hard to breathe at first. I twist my arms under his and hold him close, moving only to reach up and kiss him softly on the chiseled line of his jaw. When he pulls away, the smile on his face is so genuine and filled with joy that it almost brings me to tears again. I know how hard this has weighed on him, I know the fear that has filled his heart every day since Carrick collapsed last Thanksgiving, and finally, we’re past it. We can move on.

He kisses me once before releasing me, and as I lower myself into my chair, he steps around me and hugs Kate. I watch while he subtly turns and whispers something in her ear, and after he kisses her on the cheek and then pulls out her chair for her to sit again, tears begin rolling more freely down her cheeks.

“What was that?” Elliot asks, eyeing Christian suspiciously as he returns to me.

“Nothing,” Kate says, shaking her head and wiping away her tears. “Christian and I have just gotten really cl-lose.”

“Hey,” he says, reaching up and rubbing his hand gently over the backs of her shoulders. “It’s alright, we’re all good here. No tears, okay? Jesus, between you and Ana, is there something in the water here?”

“No, I’m just really happy that you’re better,” Kate says, looking up at Carrick. “I’ve worried about you and… and I’m just really happy that you’re going to be okay.”

“Thank you, Katie,” he says.

The doors to the dining room open and the waiters carrying the trays filled with our food begin circling the table. After they’ve ensured there’s nothing else we need, we’re left to eat in solitude, and as we enjoy our meals the joy from Carrick’s news seeps into our conversation and fills the room with laughter.

“So, how’s your house after Gia left?” Christian asks, turning to Elliot. “Any significant damage?”

Elliot frowns and then shakes his head. “No, actually. Once she texted me that she was out and told me where she’d left her key, I called one of the contractors I work with and had him go back to the house with me, but it was fine. It looked like whoever helped her get her shit out wasn’t very careful, because there were a few dings in the walls and she took a chair that wasn’t really hers, but other than that everything was fine. And she’s just disappeared since then. I went into work the following Monday preparing myself for the ‘let’s keep it professional talk’ but she wasn’t there. Her office was cleaned out and there was a letter of resignation on her desk. She hasn’t called or texted me, she changed her number… she’s just, gone. I guess she really is fucking pissed.”

“Enough to quit her job?” Christian asks, and Elliot shrugs.

“I guess. I keep waiting for someone to call me for a reference, and I’d give her a good one because her work was never an issue, but there’s been nothing. It’s kind of weird actually, like she’s disappeared.”

“Weird,” Christian repeats uncomfortably. “Right.” I turn to look at him, trying to gauge his expression, but my attention is very quickly distracted by Grace, who seems to be eager to change the subject.

“Ana, where’s Ray?” she asks. “We were surprised he didn’t fly here on Christian’s jet with us.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t my ideal diversionary tactic because my father’s late arrival has been a very tense subject all week. I take a deep breath and hear Christian do the same. “He’s flying in tomorrow morning,” I reply, but she raises an eyebrow, not willing to let me get away with such a dismissive response.

“That surprises me. I would have thought he’d want to spend as much time as possible with you, especially since you haven’t been home in over a month.”

“He does, it wasn’t really his choice.”

“Oh, it was his choice. The fact that anyone is giving into her tantrum is a choice,” Christian interrupts. His mother looks over at him, surprised by the sudden hostility in his tone, and I sigh before I explain.

“My mom and Christian aren’t in a great place right now…”

“No, don’t act like we’re equal players in this, Anastasia. I never said or did anything to that woman to make her…”

“Okay, okay,” I cut him off with a conciliatory tone. “My mother has formed some opinions and said some things to Christian that are making it very difficult for them to have a relationship right now. Still, Christian offered to pay for her flight out here but she refused and said she didn’t want his um… money.” Christian snorts as I leave out my mother’s very colorful descriptor of that particular word. “So, she bought her own ticket, which is for very early tomorrow morning, and then asked me to pick her up from the airport. When I told her that I was going to be busy tomorrow morning getting ready for graduation and offered to have Luke or Taylor come pick her up, she said she was here for me but that as long as she was here, she wanted nothing to do with Christian or the people he paid. She and I got into an argument over it and I ended up telling her that if she was going to act that way then she could rent her own car or pay for a taxi and she went on a very long tirade about how I didn’t even care if she came at all, and how she’s my mother and Christian is keeping me away from her, turning me against her…”

“She yelled at you until you cried,” Christian interjects.

I take another breath. “Anyway, it got bad so that when my dad called me and I told him what happened, he offered to fly to Georgia first, talk her down before she got here to try and head off any arguments that would have happened when she got here, and then fly with her to Boston so that he could rent a car and drive them both down.”

“Oh, well… that’s very diplomatic of him,” Grace says carefully. “But I’m sorry that it means you missed a day with your father.”

“Me too,” I say, tearing the bread on the edge of my plate into tiny pieces.

“She’s making this about her,” Christian says, reaching over to place a hand on my knee. “She always tries to make everything about her and I’m not going to have it this time. Not about this. This is your graduation, Ana, your moment. Let’s not waste any more of your day talking or worrying about her.”

“Right,” Carrick adds. “This weekend is about Ana. In fact, I think we could do with a toast.” He raises his glass and tilts it towards me. “We are so very proud of you, Anastasia. Both for all that you’ve accomplished, and for the woman you have become. We could not wish for a more perfect woman to have in our family. Congratulations on graduating from Harvard.”

“To Ana,” Christian confirms, raising his own glass, and the rest of the family follows.

“And to Kate!” I add. “She’s our valedictorian, and no one deserves it more.”

“To the valedictorian!” Mia exclaims.

“Hear, hear,” Elliot adds, and finally, everyone drinks.

 

Everyone is in very high spirits when we finally leave the restaurant, and the excitement is only heightened when the high ping of an email coming in sounds from both mine and Kate’s phones.

“Grades are in,” Kate says, looking down at the screen of her phone and I immediately fish mine out. Inside the email there’s a link to the student portal that lists our final grades, and I find myself holding my breath as I click the screen and read the text that pops up.

 

Student Name: Steele, Anastasia R.

Course Schedule:

Political Journalism Writing: 97.6%

Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop: 99.3%

Literature of the Enlightenment Period: 94.1%

Kaleidoscopic Romanticism: 97.5%

Trans-Reformation English Writing: 90.9%

Cumulative GPA: 4.0

 

“Well?” Christian checks, and I smile up at him.

“4.0 intact!” He smiles back at me and quickly moves to wrap his arms around me, congratulating me again as he spins me once through the air and passes me off to his family.

“Okay, we can’t just call it a night now,” Kate says. “We should go out! I’ve been stuck in the house studying for the last two weeks, I’m graduating tomorrow, I want to spend time with all the people I love and I want to celebrate.”

“You kids go have fun,” Carrick says. “We’re gonna turn in.” He pulls Mia toward him, silently demonstrating that she’s a part of his we, but he doesn’t do the same for Elliot.

“Uh… sure,” Elliot says. “What do you want to do?”

“Mmmm, let’s go down to Mac’s Pub and shoot some pool. Christian and Ana can play doubles with us.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Christian says. “I think Ana and I are going to head home. We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow and she needs… rest.”

I glance over and meet his gaze, and when I see the twinkle of lustful promise hiding behind the steel gray looking back at me, the pent up frustration after a night of hiding him playing with me under the table sends a wave of vindictiveness washing through me.

He wanted anticipation? I’ll give him anticipation.

“No, I want to go!” I say, pouting as I turn and press against him, and he frowns.

“What?”

“Well, we’re going home on Sunday, and my parents are going to be here tomorrow. This is really our last free night in Cambridge.”

“And you want to spend it at a bar playing pool?”

“Sure do. In fact, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.” I pivot my body to shield what I’m doing from Kate and Elliot and then reach down to grip him through the front of his pants. His muscles tighten and a huge, taunting grin spreads across my face, but as the understanding dawns on him, the corner of his mouth upticks into a cocky kind of smirk.

He’s up for the challenge.

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” He gestures for Luke to lead the way to the car and as he takes my hand in his, Kate wraps her arm through Elliot’s and bounds after us.

Taylor doesn’t seem very excited about the idea of Mac’s Pub, probably because, like The Table, it’s overly crowded, only here we don’t have a private dining room Luke can stand outside of monitoring everyone who goes in and out. We have to wait in the car for a few minutes for Kommer, Cardella, and Harrison, Kate’s bodyguard, to arrive, and when they do, Taylor sets Harrison and Kommer at both of the entrances to the bar and instructs Cardella and Sawyer to basically attach themselves to Christian and I while he meanders through the bar to keep an eye on everything, and everyone. The entire night, if I move, so does Cardella. The waitresses popping through the crowded tables aren’t allowed to bring us any drinks. Taylor watches everything being made and delivers it to us personally. Even the three tonic waters with lime that I ask for, which don’t even have to be mixed.

“That’s a very crowded table,” I say to Christian as Kate sinks the seven ball in the top right corner. “They’re beating the pants off us.”

“Someone should be,” he says under his breath. I smile and take a quick grab at his exquisite ass before moving around the table to watch Kate miss a bank shot on the two.

“You’re up, Ana,” she sighs. I scan the table for the best shot on a striped ball, but as I bend over the rail, Christian calls out to stop me.

“Hold on just a second,” he says, making his way around behind me. “Your posture’s off.”

I feel his hands on my hips and then feel him press into my backside, hard and ready, and it makes my thighs clench with excitement. He bends me farther over the table and then uses his hands to pull my behind more firmly into him.

“That’s better,” he whispers, and as he moves a step back, I take a deep breath and make the shot. The nine bounces off the bannister and knocks the four into the side pocket.

Elliot laughs. “Oh my god, you guys are the worst at this game.”

“We knew they would be,” Kate adds. “Not everyone can be as fucking awesome as we are.” He laughs again then slides up next to her, and with a wave of his arm they suddenly launch into a crazy complicated handshake that involves involves synchronized kicks and jumps, even sound effects. When they’re finished, Kate breaks down in laughter.

“Alright, I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” I say, rolling my eyes, and as I hand my drink to Christian to hold, he raises an eyebrow at me.

“Do you want me to come?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Grey,” I reply, and then lean up on my tiptoes to whisper in his ear. “But I think Cardella can escort me just fine.” His responding groan makes me smile, and when I turn and walk away with Cardella, I purposefully sashay my ass back and forth as I cut through the crowd.

We stay for two more games, which last a little more than an hour, and the entire time we spend in the crowded bar is a convoluted game of cat and mouse between Christian and I. In the bathroom, I pause to take a very revealing picture of my cleavage to text to him, even making sure a noticeable amount of my nipple is visible in one. He responds by sending me a series of his own explicit text messages, only his are spelled out in words, not pictures. By the time I start stroking my cue with the tips of my fingers, trying to seem as though I’m doing it absentmindedly until I turn and look him dead in the eyes, he’s had enough of the game and on his next shot, he purposefully sinks the eight ball.

“Ooh, bad luck, bro,” Elliot says, but Christian simply shrugs and hands his cue back to Luke.

“That’s fine. Ana and I need to get home anyway, it’s getting late. Please, stay and enjoy the rest of the night. Your drinks are on me.”

“Well if you insist. Taylor! The Russian Imperial Stout!”

Christian shakes his head as Taylor moves to the bar to fetch Elliot’s $20 beer, but when he returns, Christian takes my hand and nods for him to lead us out to the car, and all I can do is give Kate a quick wave goodbye before I’m being pulled from the bar.

It’s a tense ride as I feel Christian’s hands itching to reach out for me the entire way home, and when we finally do finally pull into the driveway, he practically bolts from the car.

“Give us one hour,” Christian says to Taylor, and after his responding nod, I’m pushed through the back door and into the kitchen, where Christian practically attacks me. His lips are fierce against mine, his hands firm against each side of my face as he pushes me blindly towards the living room.

“We’re not going to make it upstairs,” he says, his words muffled as he doesn’t remove his lips from mine. “After a night like tonight, I need your mouth. I need you to make me come.”

I hum in approval, and he reaches for one of the pillows on the couch to drop on the floor in front of him so I can comfortably settle down on my knees and begin work releasing him from his pants. When my fingers wrap around him, I stroke my hand up and down his length a few times before placing a soft kiss on the tip of his erection.

“Enough teasing, Ana,” he growls. His fingers twist in my hair and he thrusts past my lips, groaning with deep, real pleasure when I’ve enveloped him to the very end of my limit, and the sound sends a shiver of satisfaction through me. I love this, love when he’s taken over by pure, primal need and lust. Love that I’m the only one who can satisfy the overpowering desire driving him. And so, I tighten my lips, suck hard, and enjoy the other gratified sounds he makes while I set to work.

“Yessss, Ana. Fuck, just like that. Just like that.”

I hum and moan as I move my mouth up and down his length, swirl my tongue across his perfectly smooth skin, and use my hand to add more friction or to tug gently on his testicles. A few times, I feel his body shift as a sharp lance of pleasure washes through him and his legs tremble. Soon, the muscles in his abs begin to pull and tighten, his erection stiffens to its full potential in my mouth, and with a loud, harsh groan and a quick, deep thrust, he spills his release into my throat. I push as far forward as I can, pressing my nose into his lower abdomen as I swallow him over and over again, making his whole body shake. When it becomes too much, he reaches down and pulls me off of him, immediately claiming my lips with his and kissing me with deep, burning passion that makes me feel loved and desperately wanted.

His fingers reach for the zipper on the back of my dress as he guides me back towards the stairs. It pools to the floor, followed quickly by my bra, and when I take my first step up onto the stairs, Christian stops me, pulls me tightly against him to kiss me for a long drawn out moment, and then eases me down on the step three above where he’s standing.

“I’ve had mine,” he says. “It’s your turn.” I moan as he kneels down on the bottom step and then pries my knees apart. His fingers slide up my thighs and hook around my panties, and while he slowly eases them down my legs, he never breaks eye contact with me. The connection has me instantly wet.

“Don’t expect these back,” he says as he tucks my panties into his back pocket, but before I can come up with any kind of clever, biting response, he dives in to me and my mind goes completely blank.

“Oh, yes,” I breathe as he begins to lap at my clitoris. My head tilts back and my mouth falls open as I revel in the feel of his expert tongue. There are few things in the world I could compare to the extent of his talent and the way he’s able to make me feel, but if true nirvana is real, I imagine it has to include Christian’s mouth between my legs.

His lips move to join his tongue and as he begins to suckle on me, the pleasure is intensified tenfold and I can’t help myself from reaching into his hair and holding him against me. My hips begin to jerk as I desperately seek the friction I need to reach the point of release, and as his whole mouth begins moving in conjunction with my hips, heat begins to bloom from the point of contact between us and rushes through my blood until my entire body is seized with the pulsing grip of a powerful orgasm.

I scream his name as I fall apart and grip tightly to the stairs, my knuckles turning white as I hang on for dear life. He growls a viscerally satisfied sound as he feels my lower lips convulsing around his tongue, and just as I think I’m going to go too far, that this time he may have actually pushed me past the brink of insanity, his mouth begins to slow. The pressure he exerts into me decreases and soon, it’s only his tongue on me again, moving against me so softly it’s just enough to keep the aftershocks of my orgasm tingling in my limbs without becoming too much to handle.

“You taste so fucking good,” he says when he finally pulls away from me, and while I watch his tongue dart across his lower lip, cleaning away the last of my release that lingers there, I sit up and kiss him hard, thrusting my tongue past his lips and tasting all the traces left of me inside. His tongue tangles with mine while his hands explore my body, palming my breasts and pinching my already hardened nipple between his thumb and forefinger, and when I whimper, he pulls away, stands, and holds his hand out to me.

“Come, I’m not nearly finished with you yet.”

I smile, take his hand, and let him lead me the rest of the way up the stairs to my bedroom. Once we’re inside, he quickly directs me to the bed and begins leaving kisses over every part of my body he can reach.

“You’ve already got me, Christian,” I whine. “I’m ready for you, take me.”

“So impatient,” he says quietly against the skin on my chest. “What happened to building the anticipation?”

I gasp as his teeth sink into the top of my breast, then reach down and grab him by the jaw, forcing him to look up at me.

“I’ve had anticipation, now I want you to fuck me.”

He raises an eyebrow and a devilish grin spreads across his face. “Your wish.”

So quickly that the movement leaves me a little disoriented, he flips me onto my knees and pushes me down onto the bed so that my ass is in the air. His knees knock against mine, silently telling me to spread my legs wider for him, and no sooner than I feel him positioning himself between my legs, he thrusts inside of me. I gasp at the sudden intrusion and then curl my fingers into the sheets, holding myself steady as his quick, harsh thrusts threaten to rocket me right off the bed. He’s rough, single minded in his quest for release, and I’m quick to catch up to his mood. Using my hands, I push back into him, even reach up to use the headboard for leverage. His hands dig into my hips as he pulls me against him with each punishing thrust.

“Harder, Christian. Tighter. Hold me tighter!” He growls and, somehow, increases the ferocity of his cadence, pistoning in and out of me so hard I feel the pleasurable reverberations in my bones. I cry out through my panting breaths that match his, and as I feel sweat from the exertion begin to bead through my skin, he pulls his right hand away from my hip and brings it down hard on my ass.

“Oh, fuck!” I scream. “Oh my god, it’s so good. Again, please!”

He complies, not once but several times over. Each hard slap against me echos through the room and is accompanied by the sound of his low, gravelly grunts, which resonate with something deep inside of me.

“God, your ass looks good,” he growls as he hits me for the fourth time.

“Don’t stop, Christian. Oh god, you’re going to make me… ah, make me…”

“Make you what, baby?”

“You’re going to make me… c-ome.”

“That’s right. What about when I do this?” He moves his hand down around the connection between our bodies and he gathers my arousal with his fingers, coating them until they’re slick, and then drags them up to the entrance of my ass. I feel him swirl the pad of his finger around as he coats me with moisture and then, slowly, his index finger sinks inside of me.

“Fuck!” I cry out as all of the muscles deep inside of me clench and the fiery heat intensifies. He begins to move his finger in and out of me, matching the rhythm of his thrusts, and when his middle finger joins the first, I detonate. My whole body trembles as my orgasm rockets through me, and he never falters in his stride as he works me through it, forcing the pleasure to go on and on until my vision starts to blur.

“Oh my god, Christian!” I pant through the roiling pleasure. “Come with me! Let go!”

“No,” he growls. “I’m not ready to be finished with you yet.” I bite down on my lip as my the largest muscle groups in my body tense and release with each electric shock, and he lets out an almost pained sounding gasp. “Fuck, you’re tight like this. You’re gonna make me…”

“Come for me!” I plead, but after two more harsh thrusts and a defiant growl, he pulls out and sees me the rest of the way through with his free hand.

My body feels so wrung out as I lower myself into the mattress, that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to move. I can’t even form coherent thought, which is fine, because Christian doesn’t seem to be interested in talking. He rolls me over onto my back and begins to devour my lips. I kiss him back with as much passion as I can muster in my completely subdued state, and as our lips and tongues move together, he begins to toy with my breasts again.

“I love how hard I can make you come,” he whispers against my lips, and I smile as I entwine my tongue with his again.

“Me too. And now it’s your turn. How do you want me, baby? Where do you want to come?”

He groans and deepens our kiss for a long beat, taking the time to truly explore my mouth before he finally pulls away and whispers, “In your ass.”

I freeze, and he pulls away, glancing down at me expectantly. His suggestion is unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome. We’ve done this before, and it was good, really good. I’m actually not sure why we haven’t done it since…

“Okay.” I nod, and his face melts with desire. He plants one more deep, soft kiss on my lips before he climbs off of me and out of bed to retrieve the small bottle of lube he keeps in his bedside table for emergencies. I roll over and watch as he pours a dab into his hand and begins to coat his erection with it, an arousing sight that has me aching to reach out and touch him again.

“Now you,” he says. I roll over on my side as he climbs back into bed next to me, and when I feel the warm, slick liquid touch my backside, I moan.

“You don’t have that clit vibe hidden away with the silver balls, do you?”

“No. But we can use your regular vibrator. It’s more cumbersome, but I’m committed.” I laugh, and then gasp as I feel the finger on his left hand slide into me. With his right, he reaches over my body for the drawer in my bedside table, but instead of simply pulling out the silicone pink vibrator that is my usual go-to, he pauses, smiles, and then pulls out the complicated purple monstrosity Kate insisted I buy at a Pure Romance party we went to about a year and a half ago.

“Oh, Anastasia…” he says, clicking his tongue disapprovingly. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

“I’ve never really tried that one…” I admit. “It’s intimidating.”

“Intimidating?”

“It thrusts!”

He raises an eyebrow again and then presses down on the on button. The butterfly on the front, which is meant to stimulate your clitoris during penetration, begins to buzz wildly while all the balls inside twist and rock and the very realistically molded penis begins to move up and down. Christian’s smile widens.

“Oh, I think we can do a lot with this.” He turns the vibrator off but keeps it in hand as he settles down in the bed next to me, and when he removes his finger, he moves his erection up against the entrance of my ass, pausing as he presses up against me.

“Ready?”

“Yes.”

Slowly, he pushes forward and I tense at first, but relax as his reassuring direction. Inch by inch he sides deeper and deeper until, eventually, he’s buried fully inside of me.

“Fuck,” he hisses. “I forgot how tight your ass was. You’re going to have to be quick, baby.”

“I’m fine,” I whisper in reply. “This is about you.”

“No.” He leans forward, shifting inside of me just enough to make me moan as he leans in to capture my earlobe with his teeth and sucks gently. “This is about us.”

I hear the low sound of vibration as he slowly eases back, and then feel the tip of the vibrator press between my lower lips as he moves forward again. He increases the intensity of the vibration, and as he pulls back out, he eases the vibrator inside of me with the same slow, careful pace.

“Oh my god!” I gasp, burying my face in the pillow as I feel a new sensation of complete fullness start to overwhelm me. He lets out a breathy sort of laugh as he continues to move, and then angles the vibrator so the butterfly is vibrating right against my clit. “Shit!”

“That’s it, baby. Feel this.”

He’s moves in opposition, but in tandem with the vibrator in his hand, pulling the vibrator back every time he thrusts forward, and vise versa, but always keeping the same pace. As I grow accustomed to his length inside of me, he increases his cadence and pace at which he fucks me with the vibrator. It’s absolutely incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and soon I’m lost in it. His breathing is harsh and broken in my ear as he quickly climbs towards release and it eggs me on, pulls me with him. In a record amount of time, I’ve gone from completely sated, to desperate and needy, to right on the edge of release.

“I’m going to come,” Christian groans. “Are you close?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m alm–alm—”

“Oh, baby!” He tightens his hold on me as he thrusts forward as hard as he can, doing the same with the vibrator when he pulls back, and once again I find myself overtaken by an intense, life affirming orgasm that rattles me to my core. It takes mere seconds after that for Christian to push into me as deeply as he can, and then still. The feel of his release, gives me one last spike of intense pleasure, but as he stops moving and pulls the vibrator from between my legs, the heat begins to dull and leaves us both swimming in a pool of post-orgasm bliss.

“It looks like you have been holding out on me.” I confess, once I catch my breath enough to speak properly.

“That was incredible. Something we’ll definitely have to do again.”

“And again, and again, and again…” I say, but he cuts my words off with a kiss until we hear a loud bang from downstairs.

“That’ll be Sawyer and Taylor,” Christian sighs. “I wonder what they’ll think when they find your clothes on the stairs?”

“I’m fairly certain they know what we’re doing up here. But still, if you plan on keeping them around for the long haul, you may want consider giving them some kind of bonus every time they find evidence of us having sex.”

“I only have a billion dollars, Anastasia,” he replies wryly, and I giggle. When he leans over to kiss me again though, he’s stopped when we hear another noise at the top of the stairs and we realize it isn’t Luke or Taylor.

“Carter, wait,” Kate says. “Slow down.”

“No, you’re mine. I’m going to show you tonight what that means.”

“I’m your– oh fuck! Mmm, Carter.”

“That’s right, feel that? Only I can make you feel that. Because you are mine.”

“Yours,” she repeats.

We hear Kate’s door open and slam closed and Christian looks down at me. “What do you think that was about?”

I shrug. “I don’t know, just some good old fashioned possessive sex. I’m very well versed in such matters.”

He nods, but his frown doesn’t falter. “Well, let’s get cleaned up and back into bed. You’ve got a long day ahead of you tomorrow, you need some rest.”

“Okay.” I pull back the covers and move to get out of bed, but before I even swing my legs over the side of the mattress, Christian wraps his hand around my forearm and pulls me back.

“But first…”

I giggle as he envelops my body and lowers his lips to mine, but the sweet moment of contact ends when we hear the very obvious sounds of Kate and Carter having sex come through the wall.

“And we can’t even be mad because we do it to them all the time,” Christian sighs.

I laugh. “Come on, time to get up.” He nods and then playfully chases me into the bathroom and into the shower, the one place where we can’t hear Kate and Carter and where we’re once again alone.

Just us.

Next Chapter

Chapter 32

Publishing contract

“So, what exactly has been compromised?” Christian asks, pacing the floor of my bedroom. I stare at him rather than at his t-shirt in my hands, which I’m supposed to be folding, hanging on his each and every word. He pauses for a long time, listening to what Welch is telling him, and the longer he goes on, the tighter the muscles in his face become. Eventually, he closes his eyes, looking as though he may actually be counting to ten to calm himself down before he speaks. “Have we secured those access points? Good. And what have the police found out?”

I turn my eyes back to my basket of laundry as Christian turns back towards me and begins pacing again. When Welch came back on and did a complete system analysis, he found several places in the GEH server where firewalls had been disabled or security measures had been bypassed with code that had not been written by the Technology/R&D department. Thankfully, most of what he found was minor. In the beginning, it looked as though the majority of the access points created in the GEH server were merely put in place to monitor information being put in, kind of like spyware. But then Welch expanded his review outside of the main company server and he found a major breach in the security system, Taylor’s system, and not just what he used at GEH.

From what we can tell, they’ve had access to our home security system for months. They’ve been able to monitor everything we’ve done inside Escala, when we left, when we arrived, when we sat down to have dinner… If there was a camera in view, they’ve had eyes on us. Twenty four hours a day. It’s the kind of thing that couldn’t have been done through a simple VPN on my laptop, they had to have had someone on the inside, someone to install the software undetected. Welch was finally able to crack the security codes on that software two days ago and when he did, he found the credentials of Sam Walker, the man Christian had hired to take over R&D after Welch’s departure, all over it.  He was arrested yesterday morning.

“Great,” Christian says, the anger breaking through in his voice as he replies to whatever Welch has said about the police. “Just… make sure everything you’ve found has been secured and protected, and loop Taylor into anything else you find. If the police aren’t going to take this threat seriously, he will. Thank you, Welch.”

He hangs up the phone and turns back to me, looking as though the entire world is weighing on his shoulders.

“What did he say about the police?” I ask.

“They’re refusing to connect the security breach to your attempted kidnapping so they’re not asking him any questions regarding who could be behind all of this.”

“But this has to be how they’ve been keeping track of us,” I argue. “How they knew that I was out on the street that morning.”

“You know that, I know that, but the police don’t seem to care. I think Leila was right, we can’t trust the police. From here on out, we’re going to have to deal with what we find on our own.”

“And what have we found? Anything?”

Christian frowns. “No. Taylor thinks that whoever it is was shaken badly when he failed to get to you, it looks like it’s the first time something’s gone wrong for him. There hasn’t been anything since that day, nothing for us to follow. He’s just… disappeared.”

“No, he hasn’t,” I reply, shaking my head. “He’s just waiting for us to let our guard down again.”

“But we won’t. I promise you, Ana, I’ll never let him get near you again.” He pulls me into him, holding me tightly against his chest. His lips press into the top of my hair and as I nestle into his shirt and breathe in my favorite smell in the world, I sigh contentedly and he speaks again. “It was a good idea to come back to Cambridge and I’m glad I came with you. You’re different here, more comfortable I think, and I like to see you this way. I’ve very much enjoyed these past few weeks with you.”

I smile into his chest. “Even though we have to vacuum our own floors?”

“Even though we have to vacuum our own floors,” he agrees with a laugh.

He’s right, being back in Cambridge has been really great for us. Away from the pressures of the press and his public image in Seattle, we’ve been afforded a degree of freedom and anonymity we haven’t had since he went to school here. He’s been much more relaxed, more playful, and much more easy going. We’ve had more sex in the past few weeks than we did even last summer when we together all the time, and I’m starting to believe it has something to do with the Cambridge air. We’ve been happy, and it’s helped me make tremendous strides in moving on from what happened.

But there has been a learning curve to our life here. It’s been a long time since Christian has had to live without a full staff, specifically a housekeeper. In fact, I don’t think he ever has, except when he was at Harvard, and even then his meals were prepared for him and he had a his laundry sent out every few days. Kate and I aren’t about that life and now everytime we have to go to the grocery store or do the dishes, it’s like he turns into an alien from a different planet who is learning the ways of Earthlings for the first time.

“Let me help,” he says, turning towards the basket of laundry on the bed, but when he takes out a t-shirt to fold, he ends up twisting it into a crumpled mess and I laugh.

“I’ve got it, babe,” I say, reaching for the shirt, but he holds it out of my reach.

You don’t need to be on your feet all day, especially when we’re just about to leave to have your blood pressure checked. I want to help, just… show me one more time.”

Between the efforts I put into teaching Christian how to fold, and his subsequent obsessive compulsiveness making sure every corner matches up exactly, it takes nearly half an hour to get through the single load in the basket. And when we do, I’ve still done the lion’s share of the work.

“There, done,” he says proudly as he lifts a pair of my leggings up for me to see how meticulously they’ve been folded.

“It’s perfect,” I tell him, picking up the basket to take back down to the laundry room, but once he’s shut the drawer to my dresser, he hurries towards me, grabs onto my waist, and pulls me down on the bed. He nestles himself against my side, because he has to now with my bump protruding out so far, and his lips come down on mine.

“One more time before we go,” he moans.

“We don’t have time,” I protest, though the wanton need laced heavily through my voice, elicited by his tongue, isn’t very convincing.

“But these look so good.” He reaches up and kneads my breasts with his palms. “I love your body like this.”

“Ugh… I don’t, but I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

“Immensely,” he breathes, moving down to push his face into my cleavage and sucking slightly on the swell of my breast peeking through top of my button down blouse.

“Well, take it all in, Grey. You’ve got nine weeks left.”

“Nine weeks,” he repeats, and he takes a long breath as he looks up at me. “She’s almost here. It seems like it’s gone by so fast…”

“No it doesn’t,” I laugh and then, after kissing him quickly on the mouth, I shove against him with my hands. “Come on, let’s go see how she’s doing, shall we?” He groans with disappointment but pivots so I can get up off the bed and as we leave the room and make it to the top of the stairs, his hand grips tightly to my behind.

“Watch it now, Grey,” I say indignantly, but he just gives me an overly satisfied, toothy smile in reply.

“It slipped.”

“Uh huh.” He takes the laundry basket out of my hands since I’m a little unsteady with my center of gravity thrown so far off, and we descend the stairs to find Kate and Carter sitting around the dining room table, eating breakfast.

“There are law schools in Seattle,” she says. “UW’s a good school and you’d look good in Husky purple.”

“From Harvard to state school,” he says dejectedly. “Great.”

Christian moves past them, clearly uninterested in whatever dilemma they’re facing as he pours himself a cup of coffee, but I pause as I pick up my purse from the kitchen counter.

“What’s wrong?”

“He got wait listed for Harvard Law.” Kate says.

“Oh… Well, that’s not a rejection,” I say, trying to be optimistic. “It’s still early, something will probably open up.”

“Yeah, tell that to my father. He already thinks I’ve been wasting all my time here partying, this is just going to validate all of that for him.”

“Well, if you don’t get in this year, maybe you could take a gap year,” Kate suggests. “Get some real world experience and then re-apply.”

“Maybe,” Carter says unsure. He takes a drink of his coffee and then turns to me, clearly looking to change the subject. “Where are you two off to?”  

“I have a doctor’s appointment in the city and then a meeting with the representatives from HarperCollins.”

“HarperCollins?” Kate asks. “Wait, when did you get an offer from HarperCollins?”

“Last week. And they’ve been very insistent. Dr. Ralston says they’ve emailed him every day since I got their letter. Apparently they’ve expedited their whole process to get an offer put together in the same amount of time as the others.”

“And you were worried you weren’t going to get published,” she smiles.  

“Yeah. I thought the waiting for the offers to come in was the stressful part, but now everyone is just throwing numbers at me and expecting me to make hard fast decisions on something that feels really precious and personal, you know? I kind of wish I could just pause for a second.”

“You don’t have to sign anything you don’t want to,” Christian reminds me. “If they’re pressuring you, tell them you need some time and you and I can go over everything tonight.”

“You’re not going with her?” Kate ask, turning to Christian, and he shakes his head.

“This is her deal,” he says. “And she’s perfectly capable of making it on her own.”

“Thank you, baby.” I lean over to kiss him softly, but as I pull away, I see an all too familiar glint appear in Kate’s eyes.

“So, you’re going to have the afternoon, free?” she asks.

“I suppose,” Christian responds. “Why?”

She shrugs but then gives a pointed look to Carter. They have a sort of silent exchange with a series of tense looks until Carter finally takes a deep breath and turns to Christian.

“Uh… if you’re not doing anything, maybe you and I could hang out. I’m not doing anything either and I still have a few friends on the rowing team, so I can get us access to Newell. We could go out on the river. Get a few reps in…”

“You want to row?” Christian asks dubiously, and Carter nods.

“Sure,” he says, but he doesn’t really sound sure. In reality, I know this is all part of Kate’s plan to get Christian and Carter to bond because, while he and I have had a great time being back here in Cambridge and Christian and Kate have grown closer living under the same roof, the same can’t be said for him and Carter. There hasn’t been any issues, Christian has been perfectly cordial, but there’s still a tangible wall of resentment between them and Kate is bound and determined to knock it down.  

“I think it’s a great idea,” I interject. “You were saying just a few months ago you could row circles around the new team. Now’s your chance to prove it.”

“And, it’s a beautiful day,” Kate adds.

Christian looks at us both suspiciously for a moment, but eventually lets out a long breath and nods. “Why not? It’s been awhile since I’ve been out on the water. Reed might actually be able to keep up with me now.”

“Maybe,” Carter says and as Kate launches into her plans for picnic lunches by the river, Luke comes in through the back door with keys in hand.

“Mr. Grey, Taylor and I are ready when you are.”

“Which is now.” He reaches out for me and as we turn to leave the kitchen, he shoots a dubious kind of look back at Carter. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”

“Can’t wait,” Carter says, and as Kate turns to me, beaming, I shake my head and follow Christian through the back door.

 

Since it’s a Saturday and Dr. Baker is only seeing me today as a special favor because she’s already on call, the waiting room to her office is completely empty and it makes the short wait feel much longer and more awkward. There isn’t even a receptionist sitting at the desk, just me, Christian, and a large empty room filled with Parents magazines and discarded toys scattered amongst the chairs.

“Okay, Ana,” Dr. Baker’s nurse says as she comes through the door from the back. “Come on in.”

I smile at her and take Christian’s hand as we follow her to the examination room. She takes my vitals and records them in the system, then tells me Dr. Baker will be in real soon before leaving Christian and I to wait again.

“What could she possibly be doing?” Christian asks, getting up to pace back and forth across the small room. “We’re the only people here…”

“I think there must be some law about doctors being legally required to make you wait. I’m usually her first patient because I try to get here before I have to go to school most of the time, and it’s always like this.”

He sighs and leans against the counter, impatiently tapping his fingers against the sharp ledge, until Dr. Baker eventually comes through the door.

“Good morning, Anastasia,” she greets me. “How are you feeling today?”

“Tired,” I tell her. “Always tired.”

“Well, being seven months pregnant has been known to do that to a person,” she smiles. “But, we have some good news. Your blood pressure has gone down.”

“It has? Oh my god, that’s great!”

“Yes, it’s still a little elevated, but this is the first time since last November that it hasn’t gone up so we need to figure out what’s changed and make sure you’re doing more of it. Have you started running again?”

I frown. When I first got back to Cambridge, I tried to pick up running with Luke again, but just the few days I stopped during that last week in Seattle was enough to derail me. It was so uncomfortable trying to jog up the street that I simply couldn’t make it through our normal route and after three days of it just getting worse and worse, Christian and I decided it was better to stay at home and rest than push myself too hard. Especially since I was headed into my 3rd trimester.

“No,” I tell her. “Ever since I’ve come back from Seattle, I’ve found that most physical activity just completely wipes me out. I get winded going up the stairs sometimes now. We’ve have a really good few weeks though, very little stress. Maybe that’s the reason?”

“Perhaps, but with finals and graduation coming up for you, I think your environmental stress levels are bound to increase once again. If cardio is becoming too much for you this late in your pregnancy, then it might be a good idea to find something less strenuous. Yoga, maybe? Meditation. Even simply having sex regularly can keep us on the right track.”

“Sex?” Christian repeats, intrigued, and Dr. Baker smiles at him.

“Yes, Mr. Grey. Sex has many practical health benefits. Orgasms help reduce stress levels and have a measurable impact on blood pressure.”

“I see,” he says, with a smile. “Well, if it’s doctor’s orders…”

I roll my eyes. “My roommate did yoga for awhile, I can probably convince her to pick it back up with me.”

“Great,” Dr. Baker says. “Well, let’s take some measurements shall we?”

I nod and lay back so that she can measure my belly and listen to Calliope’s heartbeat. She does a quick check of my wrists and ankles and since my ankles are a little swollen tells me to make sure I’m elevating my feet as much as possible when I’m sitting or even laying down. She asks about how much movement I’ve been feeling and when I tell her I’m nearly convinced that Calliope is going to be a gymnast when she grows up, Dr. Baker laughs and tells me that’s a sign of very good things.

“Alright, I think we’re looking very good,” she says with a smile. “Do you have any questions for me?”

“I just wonder if there’s a point where her exhaustion should become a concern?” Christian asks. “She’s been noticeably more difficult to get out of bed in the morning and she’s tired throughout the day. She’s fallen asleep at the dinner table more than once.”

“That’s normal,” Dr. Baker says. “All I can say to listen to your body, Anastasia. It’s very good at telling you what it needs.”

“Thank you, Dr. Baker.”

“No problem,” She smiles. “I’ll see you in two weeks?”

“Right before finals,” I smile at her.

“Good. Until then, let’s work on keeping your blood pressure down.”

“It’ll be my top priority,” Christian says, trying to hide an implication filled smile and I shake my head with exasperation. Although, if what the doctor told me today is true… our increased sexual activity may be the reason my blood pressure has gone down in the first place. It’s really the only thing that’s changed…

I thank her again and shake her hand before we leave the office, and as we make our way through the deserted hallways to the car where Luke and Taylor are waiting, Christian’s hand skims down my back to grip tightly to my behind.

“Subtle,” I chide him with a smile, and his answering grin is infectious.

“I’m just doing my best to ensure your health and well-being, Anastasia.”

“Yeah, that’s what you’re doing…”

He stops me in the middle of the empty hallway and turns me back to face him. Our eyes meet for a long second, his gaze swimming with a hundred varying degrees of love and adoration until he finally pushes me gently into the wall at my back, brings his hands up to cup my face, and kisses me. I moan at the feel of his insistent but soft lips against mine and rejoice in the heat of his body washing over me as he consumes me. It’s the kind of kiss that would almost make me willing to miss my meeting, to never come up for air even, and as I feel his body press against mine, pinning me between him and the solid wall while his hands hold me firmly in the kiss, I think for a moment that he’s as content to revel in this connection as long as I am. All too soon though, he pulls away.

“I am so in love with you,” he whispers against my lips.

“And I, you,” I breathe back. I tilt my head up again, skimming his lips once more with mine, but he merely leaves me with a gentle, chaste kiss in return before he pulls back to look at me again. When he speaks, his voice is soft, warm, and filled with promise.

“I want to take you home and make love to you for the rest of the afternoon. Slowly. Deeply. Until nothing in the world exists outside of you and me.” He kisses me again. “Do you have to go to this meeting?”

“Yes,” I tell him. “And you’re not getting out of spending the afternoon with Carter.”

His lips, moving down to touch mine again, suddenly stiffen, and when I pull back to smirk at him, he shakes his head and smiles.

“One day, I’ll remember how well you know me.”

“One day, maybe,” I repeat with a laugh, and then I reach down to take his hand. “Come on, Luke and Taylor are waiting and I’m going to be late.”

 

Christian looks nearly solemn when we pull up in front of the house, but I really am running behind, so I can only give him a quick kiss and a few words of encouragement as he climbs out of the car. The pout on his face as Luke pulls away from the curb makes me laugh and for a moment, I’m almost sorry I can’t go sit on the grassy slope next to the river and watch Carter and Christian trying to row a boat together all afternoon.

I really hope neither one of them ends up in the water…

A deep yawn forces it’s way out of my chest when we pull up in front of the unassuming building on the edge of the law school side of campus, so as Luke parks the car and moves around to the back to let me out, I try to shake away the exhaustion quickly clouding my mind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to do much good.

“You okay?” Luke asks, when he opens my door and I reach for his hand to help me out.

“Just tired. You don’t happen to have a five hour energy on you, do you?”

“Sure! I’ll just mix it with this beer I’ve got here and then before we go in, you and I can jump on trampoline. Wake you right up.”

“That doesn’t sound very good for Calliope…”

“You think?” he laughs, and as I join in, I reach back into the car for the files I need for this meeting and then hook my arm through his so we can make our way inside.

My lawyer, Russell Prosser, and Dr. Ralston are already in the room waiting for us when we arrive, along with a woman and two men I don’t know, but who are dressed in impeccable suits.

“Ah, here she is,” Dr. Ralston says, standing and smiling broadly at me as Luke and I enter the room. “The brilliance behind Escaping Neverland, Miss Anastasia Steele.”

“Soon to be, Grey,” one of the men interjects.

“Uh, yes… hello. I’m sorry I’m late,” I apologize, taking the seat next to Dr. Ralston. “This is Luke Sawyer, my bodyguard. I hope you’ll understand the need for him to be here today.”

“Of course, Miss Steele.” the woman now sitting across from me says. “And welcome. We are so impressed with your work at HarperCollins, we really can’t wait to get the ball rolling. Are you ready to begin?”

“Absolutely, please.”

She turns to smile at the man on her left, who gets out of his chair to turn on the laptop that brings up a PowerPoint presentation behind him. There are introductions, then an explanation of the history of their publishing press, which I don’t need because of the stalker like research I’ve done on all the big five publishing houses since I finished my novel, and then a lot of talk about demographics and target audiences. I know the latter is important, and I do my best to focus, but it’s hard to stay engaged when I’m just looking at graph after graph on their presentation and I’m already fighting the third trimester exhaustion. Thankfully, Calliope is awake and very active, so every time I feel my eyelids begin to droop or my mind starts to wander, a get a sharp kick behind my belly button that makes me focus again.

“Now,” one besuited man says as he turns off his PowerPoint presentation, “Our one hurdle is how quickly we need to work to get this on the shelves. Generally, we expect at least a three month turnaround between signature and publication, but I don’t think we have that long. I’d give us six, maybe eight more weeks of public interest before we miss our window.”

“Public interest?” I repeat. “How is there public interest? No one knows about this book except the people in my family.”

“Well…” the woman hesitates. “Because of the kidnapping. Your name is recognizable, you have a national media presence, the public is interested in knowing your story. Frankly, your lack of response to the media allegations has been a brilliant move. Everyone is waiting to hear from you and now, to do that, they’re going to have to buy your book.”

“Media allegations?” I repeat.

“I’m sorry,” Luke interrupts. “But the event Miss Steele experienced last month is under on-going investigation and we have been advised not to discuss any details of what occurred before or after what happened. We need to keep this meeting focused on Miss Steele’s book, please.”

I turn to look at him, examining him closely as he fights to keep his face a stone facade of impassivity, but I can tell he’s hiding something and now, I have a good idea what it is. Christian’s media blackout wasn’t lifted when we moved to Cambridge. We don’t watch the news, we don’t read the papers, and I’ve avoided every mention of what happened online. I’ve even evaded discussions about it on campus thanks to my security team shielding me from everyone who isn’t Kate or Carter. And, I’ve been fine with all of that because the truth is, I like my bubble here, and I’m not interested in listening to vague recounts of what happened to me or how they’ve been embellished to sell magazines or news stories. I don’t want to hear what the media’s reaction is, whether they’re painting me as a victim or saying I deserve what happened. I like feeling removed from everything, but now…

What are they accusing me of?

“I’m sorry,” I say, shaking my head and trying to stay focused on the business at hand. “I thought that media coverage was a negative to getting published. Dr. Ralston told me that your publishing house wasn’t interested in my story because the bigger story was Christian. That people wouldn’t care about my book because they wanted me to write about his legal issues.”

“Right…” the woman says hesitantly. “But he’s not the story anymore. You are. Everyone is dying for real details of what happened to you and here you’ve written this book about pain, and devastation, and loss. It couldn’t be more perfect. This has best seller written all over it.”

I feel my face fall as the realization hits me. Carter was right. The sudden turnaround of interest in my manuscript wasn’t because of what I’d written, it’s because my name has been on TV. Because there’s a morbid quality to the curiosity and buying habits of the masses and the generous offers I’ve received are merely these publishers trying get a payday off of my trauma.

“We do believe,” one man says, “It would be prudent to change the name of the novel. Our research department has found that simply Escape will resonate with readers more profoundly as they believe it’s a more important allusion to what the public is looking for from you.”

“And we’d like you to add a forward,” the woman interjects. “Just a few words describing how writing was therapeutic for you, how this story was able to help you change your outlook on the world. Something uplifting, inspirational, a suggestion maybe that with this novel you hope to reach out to those who have suffered or have been through a horrific ordeal to help them heal. Again, alluding back to the kidnapping.”

I glance across the table, my gaze flitting to each of them and the hollow, black emptiness I can see behind their eyes. Suddenly, the room feels cold.

“Ana,” Mr. Prosser asks. “What do you want to do here?”

I take a breath and sort through the warring thoughts and emotions racing through my mind, and as the conflict becomes more and more apparent on my face, one of the men sitting across from me suddenly launches into the numbers aspect of the deal. They offer me a $30,000 advance, half upon signature, half after I’ve completed my promotional duties, and then 12.5% in royalties on the first 5,000 copies sold, 17% on every purchased copy thereafter. It’s a generous deal, more generous than the others I’ve received, but money isn’t my concern. I have money. My purpose with this book was always to try and reach people who needed a lifeline, the way I did when I wrote the story, and to do that, I have to get my book on the shelves. This deal may not be what I wanted it to be, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t accomplish what I’ve always set out to do.

“Fine,” I agree. “But you can make those royalty checks out to The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation, which my fiancé and I created to help victims of violence. You can spin that however you want to, I don’t care, but I want Random House to donate an additional three cents of every sale to my foundation as well. If you want this to be about evoking emotion over what happened to me to make money, I want that money to go to something good.”

The three of them exchange glances, even lean over to whisper in each other’s ears, and after a few minutes, the woman turns to me and smiles.

“I think we have deal.”

“Good. Send me a contract to sign, and we’ll get started.”

 

There are more details to iron out, most of which involve my promotional responsibilities and how I’m going to fulfil them so late in my pregnancy, but most of that discussion is postponed for a meeting scheduled after I complete my final exams. As we get up from the table and shake hands, there’s a celebratory kind of mood in the air, at least for them. I thank them graciously once more for their part in realizing my dreams, but when I leave the room, the false sense of elation I’ve put on immediately disappears.

“Congratulations, Anastasia!” Dr. Ralston says. “I’d told you that we’d make this happen.”

“We?” I repeat, rounding on him. “I’m sorry, what did you do?”

“I-I…” he stutters. “I got you this deal. I brought them to the table.”

“No, you didn’t. Because that would imply they were here for my book, for what I had written, but they’re not. They’re here because I was attacked outside my home and now that the media’s taken an interest in that, I’m a payday to them. If anything, the person who brought them to the table was the man who tried to kidnap me, so if you find out who that is, you let me know and I’ll send him your ten percent.”

“Anastasia…”

“You can bill me for the editing your class did over the summer if you’d like. I’ll send you a check for whatever you think is fair. But I think we’re done here, Dr. Ralston. I don’t need you anymore.”

I turn around and walk through the dark hallway, ignoring Prosser’s attempts to call me back, and I don’t stop until Luke and I get back to the car. As we pull away from the building and merge back into traffic on Cambridge Street, Luke seems content to let me stew in silence. Once we’re stopped at the first red light though, he finally looks over at me and reaches over to place a comforting hand on my forearm.

“You’re good enough, Ana. I’m sorry they’re too worried about bullshit gossip stories to see that, but you are good enough. Once your book is published, everyone else is going to see that too, and it’s not going to have anything to do with what happened to you.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I reply. “It would have been nice to feel like I did something on my own, but at the end of the day, I just hope at least one person gets something meaningful out of this. All I’ve ever wanted to was to help people who were feeling the same kind of devastation I felt when I wrote it, and to give them hope or the desire to go on. If I have to write a few stupid paragraphs about being held up in an alley and change the name of the book, that all seems very trivial compared to it’s real purpose.”

“Well, I’m proud of you, and I’m proud you didn’t just walk away. You put too much work into this for too long and it really is good. You should be proud.”

“Thanks, Luke,” I tell him, but as he turns to look through the front window again, I take a deep breath and ask the question that’s been nagging at me since it came up in the meeting. “What is the media saying about me?”

“What?”

“The allegations that woman from HarperCollins brought up. What is she talking about?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Luke. You know how sometimes you can be my best friend and sometimes you have to be my CPO? I need you to be my best friend right now.”

He glances over at me, takes a deep breath, and then sighs. “There have been some… questions as to how you got out of the situation you were in with no help and very minor injuries, and the fact that Grey had offered such a substantial reward for your return seems to be playing into that. Like you made some kind of deal…”

“What? Why would I…”

“I know, it’s ridiculous. They’re just looking for stories and if there’s anything more scandalous than a billionaire’s girlfriend being kidnapped, it’s a billionaire’s girlfriend faking a kidnapping to extort money from said billionaire. Grey thought that if you saw that, it might make things worse for you, so, we’ve been instructed to keep you away from it.”

“Yeah, but everyone else is reading it. My mom, my dad, HarperCollins. This could be why the police aren’t taking the security breach seriously. They might think I’m lying…”

“I know,” he agrees.

“So, why can’t we just tell them about Leila? That I had help escaping?”

“Because we can’t find her to verify that,” Luke says. “If we had any idea where she was, sure, we could respond. But right now, we’re not even sure that she’s alive.”

“She is,” I reply immediately. “She has to be. She’s just always been good at not being found.”

“I hope you’re right, because we really need her.”

We pull into the driveway of the house and before the car has even stopped all the way, Kommer is at my door. He helps me out of the car and then follows me up the walk to the house where we’re greeted by Champ’s excited, thunderous bark.

“Champ!” Kate yells, coming into the kitchen, and when she sees me standing there, her face immediately lights up with excitement. “So? What did they say?”

I pause and prepare myself to work up the excitement I know she’s going to expect. “I got a book deal,” I tell her, and she screams.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Congratulations!” She bolts towards me and wraps me in a tight hug. “I knew you were going to do it, and HarperCollins! Ah! We are so celebrating tonight! Virgin margaritas for all!”

“Sounds great,” I say, laughing at her overzealous excitement, and then leaning back a little to look through the arch between the kitchen and living room. “Is Christian upstairs?”

“Nope, he’s not here,” she says, in an over satisfied way. “He and Carter haven’t come home yet.”  

“Did they drown?” I ask, narrowing my eyes, but she just smiles and shakes her head.

“Nope, they’re probably just out there bonding and becoming best lifelong friends.”

“Seriously, has anyone checked to make sure they’re alive?”

“Ana!” she exclaims indignantly, but when I laugh, she rolls her eyes and turns around for the cabinet. “They’ve got to be home soon. Let’s make dinner and make some plans to celebrate your deal. We should go out!”

“Easy there,” I tell her. “I’m still seven months pregnant and exhausted after a very full day. My idea of celebrating is vegging out on the couch and watching a movie.”

“Well, you better pick one that at least has a hot guy in it.” she says. “Full frontal nudity preferable.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of full frontal nudity in my life tonight. You’re not the only one who is going to want to celebrate.”

“Gross,” she says, rolling her eyes, and I laugh.

We decide on tacos to go with the margaritas Kate is insistent on, and while we stand at the counter chopping vegetables together, I notice her phone buzzing again.

“Elliot?” I ask, as she picks up her phone to answer the text. She nods, but doesn’t give any further details, so I press her. “What’s he up to?”

“He broke up with Gia,” she says casually, as she sets her phone down, and I drop the knife in my hand.

“What?!”

“Yeah. He’s at Grace and Carrick’s right now and he’s staying there for a few days until she moves out.”

“Wh-what happened?”

“Remember how he thought she was cheating on him with that investment banker?”

My eyes widen. “She was?”

“No,” Kate says, shaking her head. “Apparently Christian’s security team is still monitoring her communication and she had another meeting scheduled with that guy so Elliot had that bodyguard that Christian hired to keep an eye on them secretly follow her to find out what the meeting was really about. But it turns out, the whole thing was legit. She was just meeting him to decline the contract that he’d offered her to do the interior of his new building.”

“So why did Elliot break up with her?”

“Because when he found out that she wasn’t cheating, he was actually kind of disappointed. I guess he realized that he had been hoping she was because he’s wanted to be done with her for awhile, he just didn’t want to hurt her. It would have been easier, you know? But once you know that’s how you feel, you can’t unknow it, so he had to break up with her. They got into a huge blow out about it last night and now he’s at his parents. He said he’s fully prepared to go home and find his house completely trashed. Apparently, she’s really pissed.”

“Yeah,” I nod. “But, she can’t possibly want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with her. What would she get out of that?”

Kate rolls her eyes. “Millions of dollars.”

I stare at her for a moment as she reaches down to answer another text on her phone, then slowly pick my knife back up to continue slicing the lettuce on the cutting board in front of me. “So… what does this mean for you, then?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Elliot’s single again and you two have been talking an awful lot…”

She shakes her head. “He may be single, but I’m not. I’m not going to throw away my relationship with Carter just because Elliot broke up with his girlfriend. The problems in our relationship haven’t changed. Elliot doesn’t want the same things I do, Carter does. I’m happy with Carter.”

“But do you love him?”

She frowns. “Maybe… I think I could. I don’t know, I’m very confused about my feelings. But I do know that the idea of breaking up with him is painful, so, that has to be the right track to love, right?”

“I don’t know… I knew right away that I loved Christian.”

“Well, sometimes love at first sight is real. Sometimes it has to be built. We’ve only been dating for three months, I think I deserve some time.”

“Okay, but if you’re really trying with Carter, then why are you hiding Elliot from him?”

“I’m not,” she says defensively, but when I raise an eyebrow at her, she frowns. “Fine, I am… but not because I’m being inappropriate with him, I’m just worried about how being friends with him will make Carter feel. I think we all have very clear memories of the last time a Grey brother got close to Carter’s girlfriend and I don’t want what happened between Christian and Carter, to happen with Elliot.”

“But I was partially at fault for that,” I admit. “I did things with Christian behind Carter’s back and I wasn’t honest about my feelings for him. The whole thing with Carter blew up because he found Christian and I together in a way that we shouldn’t have been and that’s what started the animosity between them. He’s going to feel the same way if he finds out you’ve been talking to him behind his back. You need to tell him, Kate. Especially if he’s going back to Seattle with you.”

She sighs, but nods. “Okay. I’ll tell him. But if someone gets punched out, it’s your fault.”

I laugh. “Just don’t make out with Elliot at a Halloween party and you should be in the clear.”

“Oh my god,” she says, pouting suddenly. “That was such a fun party! Remember how cute our costumes were?”

“Of course I do,” I tell her. “There’s a picture of us in those costumes in the living room.”

“Oh right,” she laughs, and while I laugh with her, the back door opens and, to my surprise, Christian and Carter come in, both smiling as they talk to one another.

“Beer?” Carter asks, and Christian nods before coming over and wrapping his arms around me.

“Mmm,” he hums, burying his face into the curve of my neck. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

“I could say the same about you,” I say, turning in his arms to kiss him and noting that his face is several shades darker. “You look like you got some sun. How was it?”

“Good. Reed’s actually not as terrible as I remember him being.”

“That’s because I wasn’t ever terrible,” Carter says, placing a cold beer on the counter next to me for Christian. “You were just pissed off at me all the time because you wanted to fuck my girlfriend.”

“And I hate to tell you this, but I did do that.” He points down to my baby bump and Carter laughs.

“That’s alright, I made out pretty great in the end. Hey, baby.” Kate smiles and leans over to kiss him, before she reaches over to stir the shredded beef frying in the pan.

“Are you hungry?” she asks. “We’re making tacos and virgin margaritas!”

“Virgin?” Carter repeats. “Why?”

“Because we, including Ana, are celebrating.”

“What are we celebrating?” Christian asks, and Kate smiles as she turns to look at me.

“I accepted HarperCollins offer today,” I say, and Christian’s eyes widen with excitement.

“You did?” I nod. “Congratulations, Anastasia!” He sweeps me up from the ground, spinning me once, and the enthusiasm and happiness I see reflected on his face is too much for me to dampen with the less than ideal details behind the deal, so I don’t. At the end of the day, my manuscript is going to be published, and no matter what the circumstance are, that fact remains. For now, I’m going to be grateful for that and celebrate with the people I love.

“Jesus, Kate!” Carter says, his mouth hanging open as he lets out long, harsh breaths. “Think you put enough jalapeno in that?”

“Oh don’t be a baby,” Kate says. “And it’s not jalepeno, it habanero.”

“Ugh, no wonder. Where’s the blender? I need that margarita.”

I twist away from Christian to get the blender out of the cabinet while he and Kate set the table. When we’re finally able to sit down, I place a lime colored drink in front of each place setting and then take my seat next to Christian. It’s nice, finally getting back to what’s become our normal after my meeting this afternoon. The whole night has me in a great mood, especially watching Christian laughing and actively participating in conversation with Carter. This afternoon seems to have done exactly what Kate planned for it to, the ice has completely melted between the two of them, and now the four of us sitting around this table feels more like family than just two couples who happen to live in the same house.

“Alright,” Carter grimaces as he finishes the margarita I’ve put in front of him and then eyes the half full pitcher in the middle of the table with disinterest. “Without tequila, this is just pure sugar.”

Kate nods in agreement as she too makes a disatisfied face after taking a drink for herself. “Round two, Cervezas.”

“Oh sure, go ahead. Have your alcohol. I’ll just suffer with my sugar drink alone…”

“Deal.” Carter says, getting up from the table and heading for the fridge. Once he’s taken two out for him and Kate, he grabs a third and tilts it towards Christian. “You want one?”

Christian shakes his head and then reaches under the table to grip my leg just above my knee. “No, I think we’re just about ready to turn in for the night. Ana looks tired.”

“I’m not tired,” I tell him, and he raises an eyebrow at me.

“Are you sure? Because I think you’re very, very tired after such a long day.”

“Oh…” I reply, picking up on the implication of his words, and as he tightens his hold on my leg, I smile. “I am a little tired.”

“Then let’s get you to bed.” He gets out of his seat and then helps pull back my chair, and as I glance down at Kate and see the knowing look on her face that proves we’re not fooling her at all, I find myself more glad than ever that it’s her night to do the dishes.

“Night, Kate,” I tell her. She raises an eyebrow at me.

“You too, Annie. I’ll assume any screaming I hear is just from the night terrors.”

“That’s a safe bet,” Christian says, and without any warning, he sweeps me up into his arms and carries me off to the stairs.

When he’s closed us off in our room, he takes me to the bed and lays me out before crawling over the top of me and taking my lips with his. With each soft kiss he leaves on my mouth, my smile widens, and I find myself glad for once that he doesn’t deepen the kiss and hold me there, because I’d have to close my eyes and that would be a shame with the way he looks right now, tanned, happy, and absolutely gorgeous.

“I’m really proud of you,” he says, settling in next to me and taking me into his arms. “You’ve accomplished something truly remarkable, Ana. I should give you something to commemorate it. Jewelry, or… maybe a car. We could start looking at sailboats for the new house.”

“No need for that, Mr. Grey. There’s only one thing I want and it’s not something you can buy.” He raises an eyebrow at me so I reach up into his hair and pull his mouth down to mine. At first, he lets me set the pace and follows my lead as I push my tongue past his lips and pivot my body towards him. Soon though, I hit a roadblock as my protruding baby bump makes it impossible for me to roll over the top of him without breaking away from our kiss.

“Here,” he whispers against my lips. “Let me.” I feel his hands push gently against my shoulder so that I roll back into the pillow and he presses into my side, his hands exploring my body while his tongue moves languidly through my mouth.

“I’m wearing too many clothes,” I tell him. The corner of his mouth ticks up into a smile, and his fingers move to the buttons on the front of my blouse. I moan and arch my back, pressing my breasts into his hands as they move down to the center of my body. Once the last button is unfastened, he pulls the fabric away from my skin and we both move down to begin work on my pants.

“Now you,” I moan when I’m lying beneath him in only my bra.

He sits up on his knees and slowly pulls his heathered blue shirt over his head, revealing each of the rock hard muscles on his abdomen one at a time. My teeth sink into my bottom lip as he tosses his shirt to the floor and I get to take in his full, perfect form. His broad shoulders, his swollen biceps, his pectoral muscles, which are so perfect they look as though they’re carved from stone. He’s so beautiful, and he’s all mine.

“This gives me very intriguing ideas,” he says huskily as he reaches down to free my lip from my teeth.

“Like your cock in my mouth?” I ask. He smiles.

“For instance.”

“Then give it to me, Christian. Let me taste you.”

His eyes darken and his hands move for the button on the front of his shorts, unfastening them deftly until I can follow the enthralling line of hair that trails down to the base of his erection. I sit up immediately, moving to my knees as I reach into his pants to free him, and the moment I have him hard and ready in my hand, I wrap my lips around him.

“Deep, Ana,” he pleads. “Take me deep.”

My mouth begins to water as I hear the longing in his voice and I pull his erection deeper into my mouth, keeping my lips tight around him until he hits the back of my throat.

“Yessss, just like that,” he groans. His hands twist into my hair and he thrusts forward, encouraging me to take him as far into my mouth as I can each time my mouth moves down over his erection. I massage him on every pass with the flat of my tongue, revisiting every inch of the familiar territory that I’ve already learned by heart. The feel of him, smooth and yet so firm, between my lips drives the desire inside of me and has heat pooling between my legs. My body is anticipating what’s to come, and I’m hungry for it.

“Fuck, I love your mouth,” he hisses as I hold him in my throat and force myself to swallow. I look up at him through my lashes as I pull away from him, opening my lips so he can see his erection drag across my tongue.

“Just my mouth?”

“Oh no, baby. Not just your mouth.” Leaning down, he kisses me deeply, distracting me as he reaches for my hips, but once his fingers close around my middle, he pulls away from my lips and flips me around onto my hands and knees. “Get that ass in the air.”

I moan as I slide down on the sheets, pushing my chest into the bed and raising my behind as high as I can. His hand slides between my legs and my insides clench as his fingers make contact with my clitoris.

“Oh Jesus, you’re already so wet,” he groans.

“I want you.”

He slides a finger inside of me, then another, pumping them in and out while I keen desperately beneath him, letting myself fall mercy to his expert touch. When I start pushing back on him, he let’s out a low growl, removes his fingers, and I feel the tip of his erection brush lightly against me.

“Is this what you want?”

“Yes!”

“Then take it. Push back and fuck yourself on me, slowly.”

My fingers twist into my sheets as I shift backwards, and a long, drawn out gasp escapes my lips as I feel him slide inside of me, stretching me, electrifying me with need that I know won’t be sated by slow, gentle love making. I lift my hips and fall down on him again and again, clenching each time I feel him press against my pubic bone, and each time I tighten my walls around him, he lets out a low, pleasure filled moan.

“Oh fuck,” I breathe as I push all the way back onto him and begin to swivel my hips so that he’s moving against every part of me. His hands tighten on my hips while I grind against him again and again, until eventually he hisses a needy sounding fuck, pulls back, and begins to pound into me. His thrusts are violent and unmerciful, training my insides to his rhythm, which will eventually be matched by the convulsions of my orgasm. I scream out my pleasure, his name, all too loudly. I know Kate and Carter can probably hear me, but I can’t stop the frenzied, feral noises coming out of me. Even Christian seems to gasp and groan with a loud, deep baritone each time his hips make contact with my ass, and when I come around him, he actually yells.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop,” I plead in time with each of his thrusts, and he complies. He continues to piston in and out of me while I fly so high through my orgasm the heat coursing through me begins to burn, like I’ve flown directly into the sun.

“Oh fuck, Ana,” he breathes, leaning back but not faltering in his pace. “You feel so fucking incredible when you come.”

“I want yours,” I whimper. “I want your come. Come inside of me, Christian.”

He groans again and tightens his fingers on my hips, pressing into me so hard that it’s almost painful, but I relish in it. I want him to hold me tighter, bruise me, as he pours his release inside of me.

“Shit, I’m gonna come,” he tells me, and, while his pace increases, I begin to flex and pull my kegals until he stills and cries out a strangled, garbled version of my name.

When he comes down, he pulls out of me, taps his erection a few times against my clitoris, and then collapses on the bed next to me. His arms open and I slowly stretch out my limbs until I’m flat on the mattress and I can snuggle tightly into his side.

“Mmm,” I hum in approval as his arms wrap around me. “I love this part. You pressed against me while my entire body feels like it’s melting into the bed. I think the good doctor is right, orgasms are definitely good for my blood pressure.”

He lets out a low chuckle and then presses his lips against the apex of my cheekbone. “I think that being apart wasn’t good for your stress. I should have come here more, spent more time here, made you travel less…”

“It wasn’t possible. I’m just glad you’re here now.”

“Me too. These past month has been so good, I’m almost sorry that we’re going home in a few weeks.”

“Ros would kill you if you didn’t,” I say with a very tired laugh, and then sigh. “I guess everything comes to an end eventually.”

“Not everything,” he says and he tilts my face back to his so he can kiss me once more. When he pulls away, he brushes his hand over my cheek and places one last, quick kiss on the tip of my nose. “Sleep, baby. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

“Mmm,” I hum again, and as his arms tighten around me, my last conscious thought fades away and I drift into a peaceful, relaxing sleep.

Next Chapter

Chapter 31

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I wake up the next morning to the low sounds of Champ whining by my bed and when I open my eyes, I see him resting his head on the sheet next to me, staring at me with his sad brown eyes.

“Hey, buddy,” I whisper, my voice still thick with sleep as I reach over to scratch him behind the ears. He whines again. “Are you hungry?”

His ears perk so I slowly pull the comforter off of me and shamble my way from the bedroom to the kitchen. The TV is on, playing the news at a low volume in the great room, and there’s coffee made and a plate of fresh looking croissants resting on the counter, but other than Champ and I, the room is empty. I can hear the dull thump of music coming from upstairs though, so I figure Christian must be working out, and as I pour a cup of dry kibble into Champ’s bowl, I worry that he’s going to wake my father. Yesterday wasn’t a great start to their relationship and I don’t want them starting off on the wrong foot again.

Before I go upstairs to run damage control, I take Champ’s water dish to the sink and, as the steady stream of water begins to pool in the bottom of the plastic blue bowl, my eyes fall upon the latest edition of the Seattle Times resting on the breakfast bar. It’s facing away from me so the text is upside down, but I can read the headline.

 

Manhunt continues for Billionaire Girlfriend’s Kidnapper, New Details Emerge

 

I frown, then turn off the sink and place Champ’s bowl on the floor next to his food, but when I turn around to pick up the paper, it’s gone and Gail is standing on the other side of the bar smiling at me.  

“Good morning, Miss Steele. I’ve just finished your laundry to pack for your departure for this morning. Can I get you anything before I start?”

“What was that?” I ask, ignoring her question and nodding to the now bare countertop, but she furrows her brow.

“What?”

“The newspaper. Was that about me? What new details?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she says, brushing me off. “Just the media throwing stuff out there to sell papers. It must be a slow news cycle. I wouldn’t let it worry you, Miss Steele.”

“Hmm,” I hum, not really falling for her cavalier attitude, but since I’m not particularly  interested in starting my morning by being thrust back into the horrifying memories of last week, I decide not to press her on it. I’m leaving Seattle today. That’s all I want to focus on. “Well, Champ is going to need to go out when he’s finished eating. Can you have Luke or Taylor take him please?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” I smile at her and scratch Champ’s fur once more before I hurry out of the kitchen for the stairs. The moment I make it to the hallway on the second landing, I can hear Christian’s music so loudly that I can make out each word to Fort Minor’s Remember the Name before I even turn the corner, and it makes me cringe. Rap music at 6:45 in the morning isn’t the best way to get my dad to warm up to him and his room is right across from our gym.

The door to the guest room is closed so I stop to knock before I walk in, but I worry that he can’t hear my knuckles rap against it because he doesn’t answer. After waiting a few minutes, I slowly push it open, but I find the room empty. The bed is perfectly made, my father’s bags are packed and stacked neatly by the door, there isn’t even a towel draped over the back of a chair from his shower.

Frowning with confusion, I step out of the room, wondering where he could have gone. For a brief moment, I think maybe he’s working out with Christian, and even though I know how unlikely that is, I don’t have any better ideas as to where he could have gone, so I turn around to take a peek inside the gym. Once I open the door, I scan the room and find that my father isn’t here either, but I still have to pause, just to appreciate the view.

Christian is facing away from me, standing before a free standing punching bag in only a pair of sweatpants. His perfectly chiseled back glistens with sweat, his muscles catching the light as he moves, and it makes every one of them look swollen and defined. His perfection is nearly awe inspiring, and as I lean against the door to drink in just how delectable he really looks, the last notes of the song die out and he turns away from the bag, using his teeth to rip apart the velcro on the gloves covering his hands. When he looks over and sees me standing there watching him, he pauses and reaches into the pocket of his sweats for the remote to the iHome sitting on the other side of the room.

“I’m sorry, did I wake you?” he asks, slightly out of breath.

“No, Champ did. I was just looking for my dad. He’s not in his room.”

“No, he asked Sawyer to go for a run with him about an hour ago. I think he’s checking up on me.”

I laugh. “Oh, he definitely is. Next he’ll be running a background check, having you followed to see where you’re going everyday, checking your references to find out all the secrets of your past…” I smile up at him in a teasing way, waiting for his playful side to come out with a perfect biting remark, but it doesn’t. Instead, he frowns and looks down between us.

“I hope not.”

“Hey,” I say, reaching for either side of his beautiful face and tilting it up so that he’s looking at me. “I’m just kidding. Look, I know he was… distant yesterday and you think he doesn’t like you, but you’re wrong.  He’s just my dad and he’s protective of me, and he doesn’t really know you yet. That’s all this is. And if he really is out there questioning Luke, that’s all he’s trying to do. He just wants to make sure you’re good man, and you are. Once he sees that for himself, he’ll warm up. You have nothing to worry about.”

“If you say so,” he says uneasily, but before I can make any more arguments, he leans down to kiss me and even though I know it’s a diversionary tactic, it works flawlessly. I bring my hands up and run them over his arms, which actually are swollen from his work out and even twitch slightly beneath my fingers. The pheromones radiating off of him are intoxicating and as I feel his lips move with mine, my mind begins to swim with fantasies that suddenly have me wondering what it would be like to be fucked over a pummel horse.

“So we’re alone,” I hint. “And you’re looking real fine this morning…”

“Am I?” he asks, and when I nod he groans and he deepens our kiss. I move my hands from his arms and wrap them behind his head, pulling my body closer to him, but just as he slips his tongue past my lips, his phone begins vibrating in his pocket and the low sound of his ringtone plays through the iHome.

“Hold that thought,” he says, placing one last, soft kiss on my lips before twisting out of my arms to answer the call. I pout as I hear him greet Ros and then slump dejectedly against the pummel horse that had given me such intriguing ideas, waiting to see if he’s going to come back. Several minutes pass though, and he doesn’t, so I push off the leather and begin meandering around the gym. Part of me wonders if I should maybe try walking on the treadmill for a while, not running since I’m supposed to be keeping my exercise low impact, but maybe just walking. I run my finger over the textured rubber on the handrest, considering it, until I glance over at the illuminated clock face of the iHome and see that it’s nearly 6:30. Christian said that our flight to Boston leaves at 8:00, so really, I should probably go shower and see if Gail needs my help packing, but as I turn to leave, my eyes fall on the bag that Christian had been punching when I walked in.

I glance back towards the door to make sure he isn’t secretly watching me and then begin circling the bag, considering it, before I eventually square up, pull my fist back, and hit the vinyl as hard as I can.

“Ow,” I whine when I find that the surface of the bag is much harder than I anticipated and the full force is absorbed in my knuckles. I pull my hand away, trying to shake out the pain, and as I do, I hear a low chuckle behind me.

“What do you call that?” Christian asks, amused.

“Painful,” I reply. He laughs again and comes up behind me, pressing his body into mine.

“Well, besides the fact that you should be wearing gloves, your technique is all wrong,” he says. “You should always keep your thumb on the outside of your fingers. If you tuck it inside your fist like that, you’ll break it.” Slowly, he unravels my hand to release my thumb and then uses his hand to curl my fingers into a fist again, tenderly running the pad of his thumb over the back of mine as he moves it into the proper place.

“Now, take half a step back with your dominant leg and angle the other side of your body towards the bag.” His hands slide down my side and over my hips to the top of my thighs and the feel of his hands on my body makes me bite my lip as I move the way he wants me to. “All your power is going to come from your legs. You throw a punch with your whole body. When you throw your arm, you’re going to push off with your back foot and use that momentum to punch through your target. Never aim at what you want to hit, you aim behind it.”

“Okay,” I nod. He takes a step back and I thrust my fist forward, but once I make contact with the bag, I immediately feel the same pain I felt the first time.

“Ow! That still hurt,” I complain, pouting and rubbing my knuckles with my other hand.

“Yeah, you should try hitting someone in the face,” Christian laughs. “It’s not great.” He takes my hand and kisses each of the knuckles before turning to the bag, picking it up, and moving it a few feet to the side.

“Alright,” he begins, squaring up in front of me and raising his hands, palm out. “Try it again. Hit me in the hands, as hard as you can.”

“I don’t want to hurt you…”

“You’re not going to hurt me, Ana. Seriously, hit me as hard as you can. Show me what you’ve got.”

I narrow my eyes at him for a moment, but then move back into the stance he showed me, take a breath, and punch through his hand as hard as I can.

“Ah! Jesus fuck!” Christian hisses. His face contorts with a sudden shock of pain and he immediately yanks his hand away from me.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry,” I gasp. “I didn’t mean to, I’m so sorry, Christian.”

He turns back to face me, smirking, and then laughs. “Just kidding.”

My mouth drops open as I stare back into the superior kind of haughtiness reflected in his eyes, and then mash my lips together in indignation.

“You’re such a dick!” I exclaim, slapping him across his bare chest as he charges back at me. A delighted shriek escapes my lips as he wraps me in his arms and starts tickling me while I struggle to get away.

“Oh my god, Christian! Stop! Ah, stop!” I giggle. I push back on him, thrashing my body to get out of his grip, but his hands are firm and strong against me.

“Stop what? I don’t understand what you want me to stop,” he laughs.

“You are so going to regret this!” I shout. “I’m pregnant, you’re going to make me pee!”

He laughs once more and then his fingers move away from my sides as his arms snake around my middle. His lips move to my neck while he squeezes me and I let out a soft, appreciative moan.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he whispers.

“Mmm, not as much as I love you.” He turns me so that I’m facing him again and then slides his hand beneath my hair, behind my neck, to pull my lips to his. I kiss him hungrily, pushing my tongue past his lips and entwining it around his. My hand slowly creeps down his body, beneath the band of his sweatpants, and just as I hear his soft, satisfied moan responding to my fingers closing around him, there is another sound of a low cough behind me. I turn and see my dad standing awkwardly in the doorway.

“Oh, Dad!” I exclaim, quickly yanking my hand out of Christian’s pants and scrambling a few feet away from him. “Uh… How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” he says. “Just a little bit of jet lag. I was thinking that since you’re leaving this morning, you and I could have breakfast before you go.”

“Sure, do you want me to cook you something?”

“Well, I was going to suggest going out but, since you offered…” He gives me a slightly mischievous smile and I roll my eyes at his lack of subtlety before I turn to look up at Christian.

“Hungry?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve already eaten. You go ahead.”

“What time do we need to leave?”

“Soon. I’m just going to make sure everything is in order at the office, take a shower, and I’m ready to go.”

“Great, we’ll be quick.” I give him a peck on the cheek and then scurry across the room to hook my arm through my dad’s. As we turn to head downstairs, I notice him giving Christian one last examining look before he allows me to tug him from the room.

“So what’ll it be?” I ask when we get to the kitchen. “French toast? Eggs and Bacon? There’s sausage in here, I could heat up some biscuits for biscuits and gravy.”

“Sounds great kid,” he says, and while I turn to the freezer to pull out the dough for the biscuits Gail always bakes for me anytime she makes soup, he takes a seat at the breakfast bar. I busy myself around the kitchen, but once the biscuits are in the oven, the sausage is in the frying pan, and I’ve made a rue for my gravy, I lean on the counter so that we can talk.

“How was your run with Luke?”

“Good.” He nods. “Great, actually. I really like Luke. He’s a good guy.”

“I think so too. Did you grill him about Christian?”

“Would you blame me?”

“No, I expected it. What did he say?”

“A lot. Luke has a lot of opinions about your boyfriend… er, fiancé.”

“All good I hope.”

“Mmm,” he hums, shrugging.

“Bad things?”  

“Mmm,” he says again, but his inflection gives nothing away, so I narrow my eyes at him.

“What did he say?”

“I told him to give it to me straight, he gave it to me straight. He said some things that made me happy to hear, he said some things that have me… concerned.”

“Like what?” I check, and as my mind runs through all of the things in Christian’s past and all of the things that have been difficult about our relationship that Luke could have told him, I feel my stomach clench with nerves.

He shakes his head though, silently telling me he won’t repeat the things Luke said to him in confidence, but when I open my mouth to protest, he holds his hand up to cut me off.

“He told me that you two have had a difficult road and that you’re not without your problems, but at the end of the day, you love him very, very much and he is absolutely devoted to you. He said if there is one thing about Christian that he is sure of, it’s that he loves you, and he would never betray you, or intentionally hurt you. Luke believes that he’ll cherish you the way you deserve to be. I suppose for right now, that’s enough for me.”

I let out a breath of relief. “You should tell Christian that. It would really help break the ice between you, I think.”

“Oh, don’t you worry, Annie. I plan on having a long sit down with Christian once you go back to school.”

“Oh…” I hesitate. “He’s, um… he’s coming with me.”

“He is?”

“Yeah. He really doesn’t want to be apart from me right now with everything that’s happened and my pregnancy so he’s going to work remotely from Cambridge.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Relieved,” I reply immediately. “Ecstatic. Being away from him and traveling back and forth have been the hardest parts about being at school this year.”

“So, it was your idea?”

“No, but only because I didn’t think it was a possibility.”

“I see. Well, just remember, you’re there for school. That’s your most important priority, not him.”

“I know, Dad,” I say, rolling my eyes at his lecturing tone as I turn to pull the biscuits out of the oven.

Once breakfast is ready, we sit down at the breakfast bar together and, again, I’m amazed at how easy it is to fall back into our normal rapport with one another, as if we were never apart. He tells me about some of the amazing places he’s visited and the beautiful landmarks he’s seen, and I’m so engrossed in his stories that eight comes and goes without me ever getting up.

“Ana?” Christian says, stepping out of our bedroom with our suitcases grasped in either of his hands. “We’re late…”

“Oh, shoot!” I exclaim, bolting out of my seat and kissing my father on the cheek before I turn away from the counter. As I sprint into my room, I immediately begin stripping my clothes off so I can get in the shower and then have to scramble to get ready and make sure I have everything I need. Thankfully, even in my scatterbrained rush, I remember to check my drawers for Christian’s Harvard t-shirt because Gail had forgotten to pack it. Once it’s tucked safely in my suitcase, I’m ready to go.

“Ryan will take your father back to Montesano,” Christian tells me once I’ve rejoined them in the great room. “But he wants to see you off at the airport first.”

“Great,” I say smiling. My dad reaches down, taking the handle of my suitcase before Christian can, and then waits for me us to head for the elevator first. As we wait in the foyer for the elevator’s arrival, I see the CNN news story playing on the TV flash over to a view of Seattle and I think I see Christian’s name tick across the bottom of the screen, but when I take a step back to try and read what it’s saying, the doors slide open and Luke quickly whisks me inside.

“Why does everyone keep doing that?” I ask as we begin our descent. “What are they saying about it?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Christian assures me. “I just think it’s better that you have some separation right now.”

“Oh…” I reply, and while my curiosity is peaked over what the media, especially the national media, is saying about what happened and the subsequent investigation, I’m forced to agree with him. I haven’t really thought about what happened much since my dad got here and it’s been an immense relief. I’d like to keep it that way.

When we get to the airport, we find Christian’s jet waiting for us on the tarmac and for the first time since the beginning of the school year, I don’t feel any sense of foreboding. Normally, I hate the flight from Seattle to Boston, but today, I can’t wait for it. Still, when Christian steps out of the car, I linger behind because my dad does.

“Impressive,” he says, leaning over to get a better look at the plane through the side window.

“Even more so on the inside,” I tell him. “Do you want to look around before we go?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “Thank you, but I don’t want to delay you any more than I already have, and I really need to be getting back to Montesano. Now that I’m home, it’s time to start pulling my life back together.”

“Well, come visit me, okay? Any time you want. We can send Christian’s jet for you or we can book you a flight.”

“Just try to keep me away.”

I try to smile, but it’s difficult as I feel the aching sadness growing inside of me as the reality of me leaving and my dad staying behind really hits me. “I hate that you just got here and I’m leaving. We haven’t had enough time yet. It still doesn’t even feel real that you’re here…”

“You’re almost done, baby girl. And then we’re going to have all the time in the world.”

“I love you, Daddy,” I tell him, throwing my arms around him. His hands move gently over my back as he squeezes me.

“I love you too, Ana. Be careful okay? Study hard, have fun, and call me. I’m not going to stop worrying about you just ‘cause I’m home.”

“I will,” I promise. I give him a tight smile and slide out of the car.

There are a lot of people boarding the plane today. While Luke helps Champ up the flight stairs, Taylor, Cardella, and Kommer all hand luggage to the flight crew loading the cargo hold under the plane as they’re all coming back with us and as I watch them, my brain has a hard time working through the logistics of how that’s going to work. We just don’t have room for everyone…

“Ready?” Christian asks, coming up behind me and placing his hand on the small of my back.

“Yeah.” I move forward, but stop when I hear the car door open behind me.

“Ana,” my dad calls. I turn back to him, watching an echo of pain break through his supportive facade for the first time, and it has me immediately flying down the stairs to help him close the distance between us so that he can pull me into his arms. “I’m going to miss you, sweetheart. So much. But I’m really proud of you for going back. I love you, Ana.”

“I love you too, Daddy.”

He places a hard kiss on the top of my head as he lets me go, but when I turn to move up the stairs again, my dad shifts toward Christian and holds out his hand.

“She’s in your hands,” he says. “Take care of her.”

“Yes, sir,” Christian replies, shaking his hand. “I intend to.”

My dad nods and releases Christian’s hand so we can continue up the stairs and into the plane, and before I make my way down the center aisle to my usual seat, I pause and wave goodbye to him one last time.

“Are you alright?” Christian asks once I’ve sat down next to him.

“Yeah, I just wish I had a little more time with him. I didn’t think about the fact that we brought him back here and now he’s just going to go back to an empty house in Montesano where he’s going to be all alone. Maybe I should have stayed a few more days…”

“He wanted you to go, Ana. He’s going to be fine. I was only there for a few days last summer, but I think Montesano is filled with people who will be very glad to welcome him home and make sure that he’s not lonely.”

“I hope so. He’s never been on his own before.”

Christian’s expression tightens and he looks as though he’s searching for the right way to say something, but as the engines of the plane roar to life beneath us, he simply raises our conjoined hands to his lips, kisses the side of my index finger, and then turns to the laptop he’s placed on the tray in front of him.

 

It’s dinner time when we land in Boston, and when we pull up to the house in Cambridge all the lights are on downstairs, which means Kate is home for the night. Champ is sitting upright in the seat next to me, and when we stop, he immediately starts whining and trying to get over me to get out of the car.

“Okay, buddy,” I tell him as I grab ahold of his collar to keep him from bolting the moment I open the door.

“Don’t let him pull you,” Christian says nervously. “The last thing we need is for you to fall out of the car.”

“I’ve got him,” Luke says, opening my door and taking his collar out of my hands. “I’m going to do a quick perimeter sweep, so I’ll take him with me. He could probably use it after being stuck on that plane all day.”

“We all could.” I smile. “Thanks, Luke.”

I wait until he’s guided Champ away from the car before I try and get out and while the rest of the security team moves to the trunk to begin unloading luggage, I take the walk up to the back door and enter the code into the security pad so that I can get inside.

There’s soft classical music coming from the living room, which is what Kate usually listens to when she’s studying, so I hurry through the kitchen to pounce on her, but freeze when I come through the archway and find that she’s already… pouncing on Carter.

“Yeah, just like that, Kate,” Carter groans, gripping onto her hips while she bounces up and down in his lap. “Fuck, baby, you feel so good.”

My eyes slam closed as I quickly turn away, but when I look through the glass in the back door and see the hoard of people about ready to come into the kitchen with no way upstairs except through the living room, I realize I can’t sneak my way out of this awkwardness of the situation.

“Ummm, Kate?” I call uncertainly, and instantly the moaning and heavy panting coming from the room behind me stops.

“Oh my god, Ana!” Kate exclaims, clearly embarrassed. I continue to keep my back turned, giving them a few minutes to get put back together before I chance another glance over my shoulder, but when Christian comes through the back door, he doesn’t understand what my silent, fervent waving means, and he walks right into view before immediately cringing away.

“Oh, Jesus!” he says, also turning to face the same direction I am. “You have a bedroom, Kate.”

“We were studying,” she says defensively. “We thought we’d take a break…”

“Uh huh.”

The muffled sound of clothes moving around and zippers being zipped stops, and after I hear Kate’s footsteps coming across the hardwood floor towards me, I turn around just in time to be swept up in a hug.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Well, you said you wanted your eight weeks,” I reply. “Surprise!”

“What? I thought you said you didn’t think you could come back? What happened?”

“We have a lot to talk about,” I tell her. “Starting with our new roommate.”

“New roommate? More security?”

“Not exactly.” I gesture to Christian with a nod of my head and when she turns to look at him, her brow furrows with confusion.

“Christian? You’re moving in here?”

“I am.”

“But… but what about GEH?

“GEH is going to be fine. Ana needed to be here, and I need to be with Ana.”

She smiles and now that the shock of me seeing her in such a compromising position is wearing off, her face lights up with excitement. “So, you’re really back? Oh my god, you’re back!” She wraps me in her arms again. “Thank god, I hated the idea that you were going to give up so close to the end.” She beams when she releases me and as Carter walks up behind her, he awkwardly holds out his hand for Christian.

“Welcome back, Grey,” he says, but Christian looks down at his outstretched hand and raises an eyebrow at him.

“I have a very good idea where that hand has been so I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that…”

“Oh, right,” he says sheepishly. “Well, uh… we really were just studying so we ordered pizza for dinner. There’s enough though, if you’re hungry. We kind of went overboard.”

“Thanks, I’m starving,” I reply. “We’re just going to go put our bags upstairs and settle in. Be down in a minute?”

“Alright.” Kate nods, and then turns to smile at Christian. “Welcome home, roomie. You and I can sit down later tonight and work out an Ana custody schedule ‘cause she and I have sleepovers once a week so…”

“Awh,” he replies sadly. “I’m sorry you’re going to have to give that up.”

“And I’m sorry you’re going to have to find a way to be comfortable with me sandwiched in the bed between you, because I’m not giving that up for anything. These are my eight weeks, Grey. You’re the intruder now.” He gives her a hard look, and she laughs. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

She takes a step forward and wraps him in a quick hug, but as he hugs her back she peeks over his shoulder at me and mouths, I’m not kidding, forcing me to stifle a giggle.

“I know you think you got away with that,” Christian says, pulling away. “But nothing gets past me, Kavanagh. I have no problem physically removing your from my bed and dumping you out in the hallway.”

“You could try, but I’m pretty scrappy,” she says, raising her arms and flexing her muscles for him, and even Christian laughs.

I give Kate one last hug and then take Christian’s hand to lead him to the stairs, both Taylor and Kommer following after us ladened down with luggage.

“We’ll have the new furniture delivered tomorrow,” Christian tells Taylor once they’ve placed our suitcases on the bed. “For tonight, get yourself a hotel room close by.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says, and with a nod to me, he leaves the room.

“Good night, Miss Steele. Mr. Grey,” Kommer says.

“Good night,” I reply, and then he turns to follow after Taylor.

“Are you moving Taylor in here too?” I ask once the door is closed behind them.

“Mmm,” he hums as he moves over to unzip his bag. “The more security in this house, the better.”

“So, they’re going to share a room?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him. He nods.

“The other option was moving into a bigger house and with the little time we have here, that didn’t make a lot of sense. They’re military men, they’ll be fine.”

“Military men? Oh, shit!” I dive for my purse and begin digging through it until I find my phone. I have a missed call from my mom, which I ignore, and then scroll through my contacts until I find my dad’s name, and it actually feels a little strange when I press my finger into the screen, hold my phone up to my ear, and it begins to ring.

Christian spends the first few minutes I talk to my dad unpacking and meandering around the room, until eventually we hear to doorbell ring from downstairs and he kisses me on the forehead before leaving to join Kate and Carter for dinner. I don’t want to push my dad off the phone while he’s telling me about his day greeting neighbors and old friends again back in Montesano though, so I close the door and crawl into the middle of my bed to finish our conversation. But it doesn’t take long before Kate is knocking on my door.

“Pizza’s here,” she says, sticking her head into my room, and I nod.

“That sounds great, dad. I’m glad you got to see everyone. Our dinner just got here, so can I call you tomorrow?”

“Sure, kid. Have a good night. Tell Kate I said hi.”

“I will, love you.”

“I love you, too. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and look up at Kate, who seems to be answering a text on her phone.

“Ready?” I prompt her, but she looks up, steps into the room, and closes the door.

“Christian said your dad’s home,” she says, and I nod.

“Yeah, he got early separation, which means he’s going to be here for graduation.”

“That’s amazing,” she smiles. “I know how important that was for you.” She moves across the room and sits on the bed next to me so she can wrap me in a hug. “I’m so glad you came back. I was really worried about you.”

“Yeah, well… you were right. Being terrified and locking myself away from the world wasn’t helping me, it was helping him, and I’m not going to give him that satisfaction. I’m going to work through this, I’m going to live my life, and I’m going to have everything I’ve worked for. He’s not going to take this from me, he’s not going to take anything from me, he’s not going to make me smaller.”

“Good.” She nods. “I’m proud of you.”

“You know, in a way, I’m almost glad this happened, because it’s opened my eyes. I’ve always thought Christian was over protective but I understand now, and I can move forward knowing that I have to be careful. That I need Luke, or Taylor, or whoever around, all the time, to protect me and my daughter.  Surviving this means that I’m going to be able to protect Calliope better, and I’m glad for that. That’s what I’m going to make myself focus on so I can move forward.”

“Well, I’m glad that you are moving forward” she says. “And I really think that’s it good you decided to come here. School really helped me move on, gave me purpose again, and something to focus on that wasn’t what had happened to me. I hope it does that for you too.”

“That’s the plan.” I smile as she reaches for her phone on the bed, picks it up to answer a text, and then tosses it aside again.

“I need to tell you something,” she says, and the nervousness in her voice makes my brow furrow.

“What?”

“Carter… Carter told me he loves me.”

“What?!”

“We were sitting at the coffee table downstairs, doing homework, and he just looked over at me and he said, I love you.”

“And what did you say?”

“I froze… and then I fucked him on the couch.”

“Wait, this just happened?”

“Yeah. In the time it takes for a pizza to be delivered.”

“Oh my god, Kate. So… you didn’t say it back?”

“No… I-I mean, it’s too soon, right? We’ve only been dating for…” She pauses and her eyes dance back and forth as calculates the time in her head “Oh my god, it’s not too soon.”

“So, do you love him?” I ask. She bites her lip.

“I– I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it. I was just trying to take things slow, not set my expectations too high this time…” Her phone vibrates and she reaches down to pick it up again.

“Who keeps texting you?” I ask.

“Elliot,” she says. “He and Gia are fighting…”

“And he’s texting you about that?” I ask, suspiciously, but when she sets her phone down on the bed, she gives me a returning look that is entirely innocent.

“Yeah, why not? We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I repeat. “You know… he was just saying yesterday that when you come back the two of you might go jet skiing.”

“Might?” She laughs. “There’s no might, Ana. You have no idea how excited I am to get back out on the water. He’s even talking about seeing if Christian will just let him borrow his yacht so we could go out farther and maybe do a two day thing.”

“In separate cabins?”

She rolls her eyes at the insinuation in my tone. “It’s not like that. We’re just friends.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Ana, he’s with Gia now. And, I’m with Carter. We’re just friends.”

“Alright,” I concede. “Then what do you plan to do about Carter?”

“I don’t know,” she groans. “I like him. I really like him.”

“But do you love him?”

She sighs. “I don’t know. I think I have to know what he wants for the future before I can let myself even consider that. We’ve never had any conversations about the future and I’m not going to let myself love someone again who doesn’t want the same things as me.”

“So talk to him about it. If he’s in love with you, he has to be at least considering what a future with you would look like. I think you have every right to know what he want.”

“Hey, dinner’s getting cold,” Christian says, cracking the door open just enough so that we can see him standing in the hallway. “

“We’re coming,” I tell him, but he hesitates in the door for a moment, probably because he doesn’t want to go back downstairs to be alone with Carter again, so Kate sighs, grabs my hand, and drags me towards my bedroom door.

Over dinner, Christian and I listen to Kate and Carter recounting what little of their Cabo trip they spent together before Kate abandoned Carter on the beach to fly to me in Seattle. I try to focus on the positives, that at least Kate seemed to pack a lot into the few days she was able to be on vacation, but I’m distracted from her descriptions of parasailing over turquoise water and wild spring break parties on the beach both by my guilt over being the reason her break was cut short, and by the number of times I see her pick up her phone and smile down at whatever she’s reading on the screen. Even Carter seems to notice after awhile.

“Who is that?” he asks.

“A friend from back home,” she says, quickly putting her phone in her lap and then turning to me. “Before I forget, you got some mail. It’s on the counter over there.”

“For me?” I ask, because now that Christian pays all my bills and my dad is home, I have no idea what would possibly come in the mail for me. Kate nods so I push back my chair and go to the counter where I see three letters addressed to me. The first one I pick up has an official looking logo in the return window for Hamilton House Publishing. I rip open the fold and pull out the heavy weighted paper inside.

 

Dear Miss Anastasia Steele,

We’re writing to inform you that after our second review of your manuscript entitled, Escaping Neverland, we have selected your submission for publication.

Included with this letter, you will find the guidelines for our publishing process as well as our official offer letter, which will require your signature before we move forward with publication.

We at Hamilton House Publishing would like to thank you for your creativity and the skill that has gone into your novel. We are honored to be a part of your publishing journey.

Best wishes,

Genevieve Seegal

Senior Acquisitions Editor, Hamilton House Publishing

 

I have to read the letter twice before the words fully sink in, and as I pull out the contract still in the oversized envelope, my mouth drops open.

“Oh my god,” I whisper in shock and Christian turns around to look at me.

“What?”

“My book…” I tell him. “They want to publish my book.”

“What?” he repeats, but this time there is excitement building in his eyes. “Let me see.”

I hand him the letter and then pick up the other two, which I’m shocked to find are also acceptance letters from Little Brick Stone Publishing and Random House.

“Ana,” Christian breathes as his eyes scan through the letter. “Baby, you’ve done it. Congratulations!” He gets out of his chair and holds his arms out for me. “I knew you’d do it.”

I squeal as he lifts me into the air and spins me once, and then hand him the other letters to read.

“I told you,” Kate says, getting up to hug me. “I told you from day one.”

“You were the one who made me submit it to Dr Ralston in the first place,” I smile at her. “Thank you, Kate.”

“Shut up, it was all you.” She squeezes me, bouncing slightly with excitement.

“Random House,” Christian says behind me. “That’s a top three publishing house…”

“Of course it is,” Kate says. “You don’t get that big without recognizing brilliance.”

“I don’t get it though,” I say. “I was rejected from Random House. And from Hamilton House.”

“Well they’ve reconsidered,” Christian says. “Perhaps your manuscript came across a different editor’s desk and they were able to see how good it really was.”

“Three times?”

“I mean, it’s the press right?” Carter says. “Her name is all over the news because of the kidnapping. They’ve got to know that if they move fast enough, they can cash in on that public interest.”

“Wait, you think this is because I almost got kidnapped?”

“Of course not,” Kate says sharply, slapping Carter across the back of the head. “It’s because someone read your manuscript and saw New York Times Bestseller. You told Ralston to try again, right? To push harder? Well, it looks like he came through.”

I bite down on my lip and Christian’s hand brushes over my arm. “Baby, you’ve earned this. You. Trust me, from a business perspective, it wouldn’t make sense to throw money behind something that’s just a blip in the 24 hour news cycle. If they didn’t think your novel was viable for whatever market they’re trying to target, you wouldn’t have that letter in your hand right now.”

“Really?”

“Really. You ran SIP over the summer and you signed 13 authors. You know I’m right. You did this. Just you, and you should be proud. I am.”

“Christian…” I step towards him and wrap my arms around his neck so that I can kiss him, and the moment my lips touch his, he reaches into my hair, pulling me into him, so that he can kiss me as deeply as possible. His tongue moves into my mouth and when I moan my approval, Kate coughs behind me.

“Not alone yet…”

“Then perhaps we should get that way,” Christian says in a low voice, the suggestion in his tone clear. I bite my lip again, trying to reign in the intrigued smile tugging at the corners of my lips, and turn back to Kate.

“Thanks for dinner,” I tell her.

“Of course. We’ll add Christian into the rotation, it can be his night to cook tomorrow.”

“Mmm, can’t wait,” I say sarcastically, and while she laughs, Christian tugs against my hand.

“Go,” Kate says, rolling her eyes. “But keep it down, we still have some studying to do.”

“No promises,” I tell her, winking, and then turn to follow Christian out of the kitchen and up the stairs. And as he turns to face me, pressing his lips into mine as he backs into my bedroom, I bask in the contentment of this perfect night, and the feeling of true accomplishment and of unbridled happiness.

Next Chapter

 

 

 

Chapter 30

Bellevue Skyline and Lake Washington

“Daddy!” I throw the comforter off my body and scramble out of bed so quickly, I nearly trip over my feet in my rush to get to him. He catches me under my arms and pulls me into a lung crushing hug while I dissolve into tears and press myself against him as hard as I can, digging my fingers into jacket so that he can’t pull away from me, until the force knocks us both to the ground. I can feel his lips press in my hair and my forehead, and the side of my face, anywhere he can reach, but I can’t tell if the erratic breaths I hear him take are from laughter or tears.

“What are you… How did you get here?” I ask through the uneven sobs forcing their way out from deep inside my chest.

“I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d drop in,” he says with a laugh, and when I pull away and attempt to give him a hard, sardonic look, he smiles, wipes the tears from under my eyes with the pads of his thumbs, and continues. “Your uh… um… you know, that guy in the other room. He had his… people get ahold of my superiors and explained to them what happened. I thought they were going to give me a few days leave but they offered me early separation.”

“Early separation? Wait… so, you’re back? You’re home?”

“I have to finish out the last six or so weeks in the guard and spend a few weekends up in Everett but, yes. I’m home. I’m not going back.”

“Oh my god, Daddy!” I laugh as I launch myself at him, crying again and wrapping my arms tightly around him while he rocks me back and forth. “I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve been so worried about you, I’ve hated every second that you’ve been over there. Oh my god, you’re home, you’re home, you’re home!”

“I’m home, baby girl. I’m home.”

“I’ve missed you so much!”

“I’ve missed you too, Annie. Every single day.”

I bury my head into his jacket and inhale as deeply as I can, letting the warm familiar scent I’ve been missing for so long wash over me and drown all of the tension in my body. I can’t stop myself from instinctively pulling myself even closer to him, as tightly as possible, for as long as possible, while I turn my head to kiss him hard on the cheek. He kisses me back and when I pull away and see the tears in his eyes and the broad smile across his face, I can’t hold back the joyous giggle that forces its way out of me.

“Hi,” I laugh.

“Hi,” he replies.

“This ruins your homecoming, you know,” I tell him as I sit back and smile. “I had this whole plan where I was gonna pick you up from the airport and have this big sign that said Welcome Home and when you came through the doors I was going to drop the sign and run into your arms and you would spin me around and we would cry and everyone around us was going to start slow clapping and someone would get it all on their phone and post it on YouTube… it was going to go viral.”

“Well, I’m sorry about YouTube.” He smiles and puts both of his hands on my shoulders so he can lean me back and give me a once over. “But there’s nothing about this moment that’s ruined. God, look at you.”

“Ugh, don’t look at me,” I reply, reaching down to cover my baby bump with my arms. “I feel like a marshmallow.”

“Well, I warned you that all that sweet tooth of yours was going to catch up to you once you stopped having the metabolism of a teenager. Now look at you.”

“Dad!” I slap him playfully on the shoulder and he laughs.

“I’m just kidding, baby girl. You look so beautiful. It is weird, though, seeing you… pregnant. I just can’t believe it… May I?” He reaches his hand up in front of my stomach, pausing as he waits for permission, and I nod.

“Yeah, of course. She hasn’t moved very much today, but she’s in there.” I move my arms so he can lay his palm flat over my bump, and as if she knows her grandfather is waiting to feel her for the first time, she responds with the tiniest kick right where his hand lays on my t-shirt.

“Oh!” my dad exclaims, his eyes immediately lighting up with wonder. “She kicked.”

“Yeah! I guess she can’t wait to meet you either,” I giggle. “Don’t tell Christian, it took her weeks to finally kick for him.”

“Christian,” he says, and the moment I hear the uncertainty in his voice, my smile falters.

“Yes, Christian. You have to get along with him, Daddy. I love him very much.”

“I didn’t say a single word against him,” my dad says defensively.

“Yeah, but I know that look. And I know this is hard for you, and probably really weird because everything is so different, but you’ll really love him too if you give him a chance because he loves me, Daddy. Like really loves me, and he makes me very happy. Besides, he’s also my baby daddy so he’s not going anywhere.”

I laugh, but my dad doesn’t. Instead, he lets out a low groan before finally nodding. “Alright, I’ll give the boy a chance. One chance. He did get you pregnant out of wedlock so, strike one.”

I roll my eyes. “We’ll see if you still say that after Calliope is born.”

“Calliope?”

“That’s her name. Calliope Katherine Grey.”

“That doesn’t sound like Ray to me, which I can only assume is because of your guy out there so… strike two.”

“Daddy!”

He laughs and then shifts me off his lap so that he can get up and help me to my feet. “So what do you say, kiddo? Hungry? I could definitely use some food that doesn’t come de-hydrated in a package right about now.”

“Sure.” I smile. “Come on.”

I entwine my fingers through his and then lead him through the hallway back out towards the kitchen where we find Christian pacing in front of the windows against the far wall, talking on the phone.

“That’s great news, Ros. Bring him back on as quickly as we can, tomorrow if possible. I want him to comb through every bit of data we have and find everywhere this guy has been in our server. They’ve been using a connection through Ana’s laptop to navigate through the system so he can start with anything accessed using her permissions.”

He turns back to face us and his eyes widen slightly when he sees me standing there with my dad.

“No, that sounds perfect. Thank you, Ros. I’ll call you in the morning.” He hangs up, slips his phone in his pocket, and give us both a nervous kind of smile. “Hey, baby. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, we’re just thinking about getting something to eat. You hungry?”

Relief immediately mixes with the joy suddenly apparent on his face. “Eat? Yes, great…”

“I was thinking,” my dad says. “We should go down to Taxi’s. It’s actually a beautiful day outside and just thinking about those grilled onions on that cream cheese has my mouth watering.”

“You mean… you want to go out?” I ask. “Like, down to the market?”

“Sure, why not?”

“There’s just… there’s a lot of people down there,” I say hesitantly, and when I turn to Christian, he gives me a reassuring look before turning to smile at my father.

“My parents have actually planned a barbeque this afternoon in Bellevue for your homecoming. My family are all very excited to meet you. Perhaps we could try the market a different time.”

“Well, I never say no to good barbeque,” my dad says.

“Great, then I’ll just confirm with my mother and let security know we’ll be leaving the apartment. Excuse me.”

My eyes follow him the entire way across the great room and down the hallway to my office as he turns to leave the room, and as his words about leaving the apartment echo in my ears, I feel myself start to tremble. We’re really going to leave? Am I ready to… leave?

“Everything okay, kiddo?” my dad asks and when I turn to face him, his smile immediately fades away. “Annie, what’s wrong?”

“I… I don’t think I’m ready to go out there yet. I can’t leave, he’s still out there.”

“Ana…” he says, his face reflecting the pain suddenly evident in his voice. “Come here.” He pulls me over to the couch, sits me down next to him, and tucks me into his side. I push my face into his jacket, trying to keep myself from crying  again as he gently moves his hand up and down over my shoulder.

“They didn’t tell me much,” he begins. “When I was in Iraq, they told me that you’d been attacked but that you were okay, and when your boyfriend’s security guy… uh, Taylor, picked me up from the airport, he told me a little more. He said that it was someone who had been following you, someone who wanted to hurt you, but they hadn’t caught the guy. I asked him again if you were okay and he told me you were, but… are you, Annie? Are you okay?”

I look up at him and then shake my head. “I’m so scared, Daddy.”

“Of course you are,” he says. “We’re all scared. I don’t think anyone of us likes to think that we may have almost lost you, but the important thing now is to be grateful that we didn’t. You’re sitting here today with me, your baby is fine, you didn’t get hurt. Those are all miracles and you just need to keep reminding yourself of that, because the bad things are always going to be bad and dwelling on them isn’t going to help you not be scared. I know a thing or two about being scared. I spent a lot of nights over there being scared.”

“So how did you deal with it?” I ask. “How do you do what you know you have to do when you feel paralyzed?”

“You think of everything you have in your life to go on for. The thing that’s most important to you that is going to make you get up everyday and do what you have to do because whatever it is makes failure not an option. For me, that was you.”

“Daddy…”

“So, what’s it going to be for you, kid? What’s the thing that’s going to keep you going?”

I swallow. “I suppose… Calliope. I mean, she’s going to be here so soon and she needs a mom. She needs me. It’s gotta be Calliope.”

“Well that’s perfect because Calliope needs you to eat right now and that’s what we’re going out there to do. So, let’s get ready to go to dinner, huh? We can talk more later. Come up with a plan to make you feel better and get you back to school. Can you do that? For Calliope?”

I take a breath and nod. “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.”

He smiles, leans over to kiss me on the forehead, and then takes my hands so that he can help me off the couch. I give him one last hug as tightly as I can possibly manage with my belly in the way and thank him for talking to me. Somehow, he always knows what to say to make me feel better and I hope that’s something I’ll have with my own daughter.

After he kisses me one last time, I feel his eyes watch after me until I make it down the hallway towards our bedroom, but the moment I close the door behind me, the feeling of confidence the conversation with my dad gave me seems to vanish and those nerves only intensify with every step I take toward the bathroom to get ready to leave for the Greys’. There’s not much I have to do, I’m not really interested in make-up right now or doing anything with my hair besides brushing it out and twisting it up into a messy bun, I’m still much too tired from my mostly sleepless week to worry about anything like that, but as I think more and more about leaving the apartment, even the simple task of brushing my teeth begins to feel overwhelming. The more the panic starts to build in my chest, the more I think that I’m just not ready to do this yet, but both my dad and Kate told me that moving on isn’t something that just happens, it’s a choice you make. Today is a choice to put aside my fear and spend an afternoon with my family, and my dad is right. For Calliope, I need to start making those choices.

“Are you doing okay in here?” Christian asks behind me, and I look up to make eye contact with him in the mirror.

“Fine, I’m just… I’m fine.”

“You still look so tired.”

“I’m very tired,” I agree. “But we’re going to go have a dinner with our family.”

He frowns and steps into the bathroom. “We don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I could have them come here, Gail could order in, I could even have Taylor go get those hot dogs for you and your dad. You can sleep more if that’s what you want. It’s up to you, Ana. Whatever you’re comfortable with.”

“No, I want to go,” I say quickly. “I need to go. Just give me a few minutes, okay?”

He presses his lips together, and then places his hands on each of my forearms. “You know, before he came in to see you, I asked if he could try to get you to eat something. Twenty minutes later, here you are. People have been telling me for years that no one understands you like your dad, but I didn’t want to believe them. I like to think that I know you better than anyone else does, but here you are, getting ready to leave to have dinner with my family and I’ve hardly been able to get you out of bed for days. I guess he is the best thing for you.”

“It’s not a contest,” I tell him. “And he has an advantage. It’s kind of hard to say no when this is the first chance I’ve had to spend time with him in years.” I stop and turn around to face him, looking deeply in his eyes so he can see my sincerity. “Thank you, Christian. Thank you so much for bringing him home. This means the absolute world to me.”

“Of course. You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to see you happy, and I just thought you really needed your dad right now.”

“I do, so thank you. I love you, so very much.” I reach up to wrap my arms around his neck so that I can pull myself up to his lips and kiss him. His returning kiss is hesitant at first, but grows softer and more tender the longer my lips linger against his. When he pulls away, he brushes the back of his fingers across my cheek, and gives me a warm, half smile.

“You sure you’re ready to do this?”

“I’m sure.”

“Alright.” He nods. “Well, you should know that I’ve hired additional security for Mia and my parents, and for Gia and Elliot, so there will be a full detail at my parents tonight. They’ll all be watching you. Taylor and Sawyer are coming with us, and Cardella, Kommer, and Ryan are going to stay back here and keep an eye on the place while we’re gone. There’s a plan in place. We’re going to make sure you’re safe.”

“Good,” I tell him, glad that his reassurance actually do seem to help dampen some of the anxiety I’m feeling. “I’ll just be two more minutes, okay?”

“Okay.” He leans in to kiss me softly on the cheek and whispers, “I love you,” before he turns to leave.

“I love you too,” I tell him, and once the door is closed behind me, I take a deep breath, pick up my toothbrush and stare through my heavy lids at the dark cicles beneath my eyes.

You can do this, Anastasia. You can make it through one dinner.

 

The elevator ride down to the parking garage is crowded. Taylor has already gone to get the SUV so that we just have to step out of the elevator and into the back seat, but both Kommer and Ryan join Luke to escort us downstairs. I can feel my dad’s uncertainty as he glances between the three bulky security guards packed in around us and Christian, so I reach down and grip his fingers. He turns, smiles at me, then squeezes my hand and shifts his attention to the numbers over the door.

“So, are you a car guy, Ray? Uh… Sir? Um…” Christian says awkwardly and, for some reason, his discomfort makes me smile. He’s one of the most important men in this city, a big time CEO who has Harvard business classes being taught about him, so he’s usually the paragon of confidence. But my dad, the small town guy from Montesano Washington who has spent his entire life in the army or doing contract work as a carpenter, is currently making him nervous.

“Sure,” my dad says. “I’ve fixed up a few old muscle cars in my day.”

“It’s a shame that we’re not going up into the garage then,” Christian says. “I’ve got a new Lamborghini up there, a limited edition Reventon, and a Mercedes Maybach.”

“Really? So, you’re not an American made kind of guy, huh?”

“Oh um… not necessarily. I looked into Cadillac when I was shopping around for an SUV, but I find that the European market has the corner on sports cars in speed and efficiency…”

“Everyone has their opinions,” my dad dismisses him, and Christian frowns as the doors to the elevator slide open.

“Sir,” Taylor greets us, opening the back door to the SUV as we step out into the garage. Christian takes my hand and climbs in first so that I’m in the middle of the roomy back seat and my dad slides in behind me. Once the door closes, I’m surrounded and it feels secure until Christian pulls a small, knit blanket out of the open trunk space behind the seat.

“There’s still press outside,” he explains “I think it’ll be better if no one is keeping track of when you’re leaving and returning to the apartment.”

“Okay.” I crouch down so that my head is in Christian’s lap and he tosses the blanket over the top of me, moving his hand over my arm under the blanket reassuringly as the car starts up. I would think lying down on Christian’s lap would exacerbate the exhaustion I’m battling, but I’m too hyper aware of the movement as we begin to roll out of the garage and of the muted noise of the paparazzi outside to worry about being tired. All I know is that Christian’s right, I don’t want it advertised that I’m out in the city, and the garbled noise of shouting voices and cameras clicking has my anxiety peaked until Taylor’s able to find an open lane and punches the gas so we fly down the street away from them.

“No one in pursuit, Mr. Grey,” he says.

“Thank you, Taylor. Ana?”

I take a deep breath and yank the blanket off of me, breathing in the cool, fresh air for a moment before finally sitting up and chancing a glance through the side window, but the view of the city streets does nothing for me. Everything around us feels haunted, as though every dark corner is concealing someone who wants to harm me, and that feeling is only made worse when we pass an alley with an identical entrance to the one I was attacked in. I think my dad can feel the tension radiating off of me because he immediately starts telling stories about times that he’s been here with my mom, but the nerves I feel don’t dissipate until we cross the I-5 bridge and we’re out of Seattle. Thankfully, once I see the sign for Bellevue, I feel relaxed enough that I actually almost feel normal, except that I’m completely exhausted.

When we pull into the long driveway in front of the Greys’ house, I have to hide a smile when I glance over and see my dad’s reaction, which I imagine is identical to what mine was the first time I saw the gigantic house nestled right up against the lake. Finally, I’m no longer the only fish out of water amongst the Seattle elite.

“So you… uh, you’ve always had money then?” my dad asks once we’ve stepped out of the car.

“No, not always,” Christian says. “But I’ve been very fortunate.” He reaches out for me, but before I can clasp my hand in his, my dad puts an arm over my shoulder to keep me close to him.

“Well, lead the way, Christian.”

Christian’s shoulders rise as he takes a breath and then turns to lead us up the walkway to the front door, past two security guards I’ve never seen before, but who nod at Taylor as we pass. The moment we step into the entrance hall, the low murmur of conversation in the living room stops and I notice Elliot quickly reach for the remote to switch off the TV, which I think was playing the news.

“Ana, darling,” Grace says, getting off the sectional and sweeping into the entrance hall with her arms held open for me. “How are you feeling? Have you gotten any sleep?”

“Yeah, a little today,” I tell her. “Thank you. Grace, this is my dad, Ray Steele. Dad, this is Christian’s mom, Dr. Grace Trevelyan-Grey.”

“Of course, Ray!” Grace chrips. “It’s so good to finally meet you. We’ve heard so many wonderful things from, Ana.”

“I’m glad to meet you as well, Dr. Grey. I have to say your oatmeal cookies made me quite the popular man last Christmas. Everyone just loved them.”

“Grace, please. We’re family!” She reaches out to pull me back into her side. “And I’m glad you enjoyed them, because we’ve enjoyed Ana so, so much.”

“Well… Thank you for giving her a family while I was away,” he says.

“It’s truly been our pleasure. We are so in love with your daughter. Now, come have a seat. The rest of the family is so excited to meet you.”

I hook my arm through my dad’s to lead him into the family room, and as we approach, Carrick places his drink on a side table and looks up at us with a smile.

“This is my husband, Carrick,” Grace begins. “He’ll be our master griller this afternoon.”

“Master is a bit of an overstatement,” Carrick says, groaning slightly as he slowly rises off the couch. “But the steaks will get grilled nonetheless.”

“That sounds great,” my dad replies, glancing wearily over the still visible scar on the side of Carrick’s head. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a good steak.” He shakes hands with Carrick and then turns to follow Grace’s gesture as she moves down the line.

“And this is our youngest, Amelia, or Mia, as we call her. She’s a junior in high school this year.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Mia says, reaching out to shake my dad’s hand. “Ana is one of my favorite people in the entire world. I don’t know what we all would have done without her.”

“Me either,” my dad says. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you too. You’re quite the beautiful young lady, you must be driving all the boys school crazy?”

Elliot snorts into his drink.

“And this…” Grace continues. “Is my oldest, Elliot, and his girlfriend Gia Matteo.”

“Yes, Elliot I know,” my days says, brightening a little as he reaches out to shake Elliot’s hand. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciated all those Seahawks updates. This one over here,” he gestures to me with his head, “gets so frazzled whenever she wrote me that she always left out all the important information. Like draft picks.”

Elliot laughs. “Well, never fear. If you need someone to talk football with, I’m your man. In fact, Christian has box seats, we should go to a game sometime.”

“Does he?” My dad asks, turning an examining look on Christian. “Yes, I’d like that very much.” He pauses as he glances between Christian and Elliot and then furrows his brow. “You know, if you hadn’t told me, I would not have guessed that you two were brothers.”

“I could see that,” Elliot says with a nod. “One of us got the brains, one of us got the beauty… the other is Christian.”

“We’re adopted,” Christian clarifies, rolling his eyes.

“Oh,” my dad says awkwardly. “I’m sorry… I uh…”

“It’s not a secret,” Christian reassures him. “Believe me, it’s a godsend really. The idea of actually sharing a gene pool with Elliot is…” He shakes his head with disgust and Elliot narrows his eyes at him.

“What’s the matter, Christian? Worried your kids might actually have a sense of humor?”

“Oh no, they’ll get that from their mother,” I interject.

“And hopefully that’s where it’ll end,” Christian says, teasingly. “God forbid our daughter gets your smart mouth.”

“You mean, god forbid she stick up for herself?” my dad challenges him, and Christian immediately looks slightly taken aback.

“Uh… no… I just meant…”

“Real men aren’t threatened by strong women, Christian. You should be grateful for Ana’s tenacity.”

“I am,” Christian says quickly. “Of course I am. I love absolutely everything about her. I’m inspired by her.”

“Hm,” my dad hums dismissively, and then turns back to Carrick. “You mind if I help you with the grilling? It’s been awhile since I’ve had a beer over the grill.”

“Uh… absolutely, Ray,” Carrick says with a smile. “Grace, do you want to grab the steaks out of the fridge and we’ll head out back and start up the grill?”

“Of course.” She gets out of her seat and places a tender hand against Christian’s cheek before she moves around the couch to the kitchen, while my dad follows Carrick out the back door. Once the door is closed behind him, Christian moves over to me, pulls me into him, and sighs.

“I don’t think your dad likes me very much…”

“He’s just protective,” I assure him. “He’ll warm up once he gets to know you, then he’ll love you just the way that I do.”

“Well, I hope not just the way you do,” he says with a smile, and I roll my eyes and lean up to place a soft kiss on his lips.

“Are you doing okay?” he checks.

“Yeah, I’m doing great. This is good, being around everyone. It feels normal.” I pause as I feel a pressure in my lower abdomen. “But Calliope just moved and is now sitting on my bladder so if you’ll excuse me…” He kisses my forehead and then releases me so I can scurry across the entrance hall to the closest downstairs bathroom. I notice, when I turn into the hallway, that Luke appears seemingly out of nowhere from the formal living room, and then follows me into the hallway, stopping at the door and waiting while I go inside. Clearly, he isn’t taking any kind of chances leaving me alone for even a second anymore and it reminds me of what Leila said about how he watches me closer than anyone else on the security team. Having him around does give me a certain degree of comfort, makes me calmer, at least until I dry my hands on the plush towel hanging on the rack by the sink and hear his voice coming through the bathroom door and realize that he’s trying to stop someone from coming in.

“I don’t think so,” he says sternly.

“Sawyer, please,” Gia’s voice responds. “I just… I just want to talk to her for a second.”

“Well, I can almost guarantee she doesn’t talk to you, so why don’t you make your way back out to the living room, and we don’t have to make a scene here.”

“Look, I know I’m not at the top of her christmas card list, and I deserve that but…”

I open the bathroom door, and both Gia and Luke look at me. I take a deep breath and then turn to Luke, who looks beyond irritated.

“I tried to get rid of her,” he says.

“It’s okay, Luke.”

“Alright…” he says, turning back to Gia. “Talk.”

“Can we have some pri…”

“Nope.”

She takes a deep breath, nods, and turns back to me. “I just… I know that we’re not close, and I know that’s my fault and that I’ve behaved inappropriately, but I want you to know that, when I heard what had happened to you, my heart truly hurt. I was so scared for you.”

“Yeah, I guess being the billionaire’s girlfriend doesn’t sound like much fun anymore does it?” I say, my voice an accusation, and I watch her pout shift as she swallows.

“I’m so sorry, Ana. I’m sorry for everything. I really want you to know that I care for you, even though I’m not very good at showing it. I need to work on that. I love this family and you’re apart of that, and I’m glad that you’re okay. I was devastated when I heard.”

“Were you?”

“Ana, please. I’m trying to make this right between us.”

“You want to make this right?” I ask, dubiously.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then admit it. Admit that you were trying to steal Christian from me. Admit that you tried take a man who had a pregnant girlfriend while you were dating his brother.”

She takes another deep breath and breaks eye contact with me. “I don’t know what I was doing. Christian is hard to ignore and he was the only one who was nice to me. I got caught up in something that wasn’t there, but he made it very clear to me that it was only you, that he had no interest in anyone but you. I accept that. I’m happy that you two are so in love because you’re so good together. And… I really do love Elliot.”

“Do you love him? Or do you love his trust fund? Or the fact that he’s a Grey?”

“It’s him,” she says quickly. “It’s only him. Elliot is everything I’ve ever wanted. He makes me laugh and I love the way he is with his family. He’s truly kind and I think… I think he’s making me a better person. I’m in love with him and, even though things aren’t really good right now, I hope I’m going to spend the rest of my life with him. That’ll make us sisters one day and I want us to be close. Really. I see the way you are with… Kate, the way you are with Mia, and I want that kind of relationship with you. I want to be your sister, Ana. So, can we start over?”

She opens her arms like she wants to hug me, but I cross my arms over my chest. “Kate’s not going anywhere. She’s my best friend and the godmother of my daughter so she is going to be in our lives, in the Greys’ lives, and if you want any kind of relationship with me, that’s something you need to accept.”

“I know. I was just… It’s hard. It’s obvious Elliot still has some feelings for her and it makes me feel inadequate sometimes. Like I’m not enough. I’m sure you can at least understand that, even if she is your best friend.”

“I do, and I’m sorry that you feel that way but it doesn’t change the situation. She’s in this family too, and if you want to be a part of all of this, you have to be okay with that.”

“I will,” she agrees. “I promise, no more fighting, no more drama. I’m over it.”

“Then, okay,” I agree. “But only because of Elliot. I don’t tolerate people who talk to my best friend the way you did. I won’t be forgiving the next time.”

“Thank you, Ana.” She takes a step forward and wraps her arms around me, and after taking a surrendering breath, I hug her back.

“So, how are you doing?” she asks when she pulls away. “Elliot and I are… well, we got into a fight so I only heard kind of the basics, just what Christian told him after it first happened… but I can’t even imagine. I mean thank god that girl was there to save you. What was her name?”

“Leila.”

“So scary. And to think your security team thought she was one them the whole time. That she was going to hurt you.”

“I think she was. She just had a change of heart.”

“Did she say anything to you? Who’s behind it? What they want?”

“No, she said she couldn’t. She just… she just got me out of there.”

“Well, thank god she did. I’m so happy you’re okay, Ana. I don’t know what Christian would do if anything happened to you. It would wound this family forever. You’re very, very loved.”

“Thank-you, Gia.”

“Of course. Now, should we join the others?” she asks. “Try to get your mind off everything for the rest of the afternoon?”

“Yeah, but… sorry, I actually have to pee again. Pregnancy life, you know? I’ll be out in a second.”

“Okay.” She smiles at Luke then turns back down the hallway, and once she’s rounded the corner back into the entrance hall, Luke turns a suspicious look on me.

“You really bought that?” he asks, and I shrug. “Ana, you know that Grey is having her looked into right? She could be one of them.”

“Yeah, and she could also just be a superficial girl who could one day be my sister-in-law, and if that’s where this is headed, she’s right. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting with her.”

“And if she is one of them? If she gave whoever is after you the codes to Escala or is keeping tabs on you for him while you’re in Seattle?”

I take a breath. “If she’s one of them, then I want to make a personal connection with her. I want to be close to her. That way, if I ever get into a situation like this again, she’ll hopefully make the same choice that Leila did. Enemies don’t do me any good right now, Luke.”

He frowns. “Just… be careful what you tell her, Ana. I don’t think it’s smart to put a lot of your trust in Gia Matteo right now.”

I let out an incredulous huff. “Do you really think I trust anyone anymore?”

His shoulders rise as he takes a deep breath, and his lips tighten, but he doesn’t say anything. He simply turns so that his back is against the wall once again, while I turn around and move back into the bathroom.

 

The conversation is light once we sit down around the table and it’s refreshing. No one asks me any questions about what happened, no one is watching me as though they’re waiting for me to have a breakdown. In fact, Christian, who is sitting directly across from me because my father took the empty chair at my right, is the only person I ever find truly staring at me, but there’s no worry or concern in his eyes right now. Only warmth and affection. The eye contact between us is merely a private expression of love, meant just for me and him. For the first time, in what strangely feels like a very long time, everything feels perfectly normal.

“So, Mia…” Grace says in an almost mysterious kind of way. “Have you told your brothers about your prom date?”

“Mom!” Mia exclaims.

“Prom date?” Elliot asks. “You mean, someone asked you out?”

“As a matter of fact, they did,” she replies smartly.

“Why?”

She rolls her eyes. “He’s in my ballet company. We’re friends.”

“Wait…” Christian says. “You didn’t meet him at school?”

“No.”

“How old his he?”

“Nineteen,” she says, and the gray in Christian’s eyes immediately hardens.

“I don’t think so. There’s only one thing nineteen year old boys are after and he’s not getting if from my little sister.”

“I’m sorry, Christian, remind me. How old were you when you and Ana started dating? It wasn’t eighteen and it wasn’t twenty…” She waits, as though she’s actually expecting him to answer, but when he doesn’t, her expression hardens and she gives him an accusatory look. “You have no room to say anything. Don’t act like I didn’t share a wall with you and Ana on basically every family vacation we’ve ever gone on. You two aren’t exactly quiet.”

“Amelia!” Grace exclaims, and, as I feel my dad’s eyes dart over to me, I immediately begin to feel my face burn.

“Oh god,” I groan, burying my face in my hands.

“What?” Mia asks innocently. “She’s pregnant, it’s not like it’s a secret.”

“Regardless,” Christian says tersely. “You are seventeen and I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to be dating anyone who isn’t in high school. Or anyone else for that matter.”

“Oh really, Christian? Did you wait til you graduated high school to have sex? And did you do it with someone who was still in high school?”

“Alright, alright, alright,” Elliot interjects, clearly understanding the direction the conversation is going in and coming in to stop it like my own personal superhero. “First of all, Mia, you are too young to be having sex, so if you are, stop it, and if you’re not, don’t. I’m still your big brother and I don’t want to have to murder anyone, even though I think I’d be really good at it and I have all of the tools to dispose of a body. Second of all, Christian, I don’t really think you need to worry.” A smile slowly creeps across his lips. “She’s going with a ballet dancer.”

He laughs and Mia throws a crouton at him. “You’re such a dick, Elliot.”

“Amelia Trevelyan-Grey!”

“Sorry, Mom.”

She falls silent, just as everyone else around the table does, but I can still feel my dad glancing between Christian and I until Grace finally says something to break the tension.

“So, Christian, where are you and Ana at on wedding planning? Please tell me you’ve at least decided on a date.”

“We haven’t talked much about it actually. We were waiting until Ray got home. Ana wanted him to be here.”

“Well, he’s home!” she exclaims happily. “So, let’s talk dates. I think Carla is picturing a fall wedding, but fall in Seattle is such question mark with the weather. Honestly, I think Ana would be just beautiful as a June bride.”

“June?” I repeat, and then immediately shake my head. “No, I… I definitely want to wait until after the baby is born. There’s just too much going on right now to add the stress of wedding planning on top of everything. I think I could probably wait another year before we start planning…”

“I think that’s smart, kid,” my dad says, clapping his hand on my knee. “It’s better that you don’t rush this.”

“I hardly think we’re rushing anything,” Christian interjects, perhaps a little too sharply, and my dad looks up and raises an eyebrow at him.

“Is that so?”

“Yes. Ana and I have known this was what we wanted for some time now. She’s pregnant with my child, I think it’s only fitting that we make our family official sooner rather than later.”

“Maybe. I guess it’s hard for me to judge how fast all of this is moving because there’s so much about you and your relationship with my daughter that I still don’t know.”

“Well, she’s happy, and she’s in love. I don’t know what more you need to know than that.”

“Excuse me?”

“Daddy…” I interrupt, giving him a pleading look to try and head off any argument that may be about to start. If there’s one thing I know Christian won’t tolerate, it’s any insinuation that us being together, or getting married, isn’t a good idea, and I’d rather not watch my father and my fiancé get into a power struggle over the Greys’ dinner table.

“I’m just saying kid, there’s no need to rush.”

Christian opens his mouth, but Grace cuts him off. “Well, I don’t think it would be a bad idea if we at least looked into wedding planners. You know it can take a year to find somewhere suitable to have the ceremony. It can’t hurt to start looking.”

“Sure,” I agree.

She nods and turns back to my father. “Carla and I have shared so many phone calls about this wedding, she’s so excited.”

“Yeah, Carla always did love weddings,” he says. “We never really had one. Maybe that’s part of the reason it didn’t work out.”

“You didn’t have a wedding?” Mia asks.

“Well, we had a wedding, but it was just a small ceremony. We got married in her parents’ back yard and had turkey sandwiches and cheap wine afterwards. We were young and didn’t have a lot of money, but I know she always wanted a white wedding, with the church and the flowers and everything. I guess Bob was the guy who finally gave her what she wanted.”

“It’s always like that though, right?” Elliot says. “It’s about the wedding. You can be with someone forever and never get married. I mean having one party doesn’t mean you’re going to stay together any longer than you would have if you skipped the whole wedding thing.”

“I don’t know,” Grace says. “I think there’s something to exchanging vows with the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with. That declaration of love and commitment in front of God and all of your friends and family really makes the union between the two of you feel like family.”

“And yet, 1 in 2 marriages now end in divorce…” Elliot argues.

“That’s because marriage is work,” Carrick interjects. “You’re spending the rest of your life with another imperfect person and it can be difficult sometimes. Some people aren’t prepared to put in the effort required to make it through the tough times or they chose the wrong person to spend their life with. But if it’s the right person, it’s worth it a hundred times over.”

“That makes it nice to know that you’ve found the right person, right?” Gia says, reaching under the table to grasp his leg. Elliot frowns and pushes his salad around his plate for a second before looking back up at my dad.

“What do you think, Ray? Would you ever get married again?”

“Me? I don’t know, maybe. If I met the right person.”

“So… you don’t regret getting married to Ana’s mom? Even though you got divorced?”

“Regret? No. Carla and I were married for 16 years and 15 of them were the happiest years of my life. Besides, I got this little girl out of it and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

He leans over to nudge me and I smile back at him.

“I don’t know if that’s true,” I tell him with a yawn. “The best thing that’s ever happened to you? What about Sunday Night Football?”

“Well, Annie, Sunday Night Football is the reason you have children. So that you have someone to go get you a cold beer when the game’s on the line and you’re past the two minute warning so there aren’t any commercial breaks left.”

“You screwed up then,” I laugh. “Because there’s no way I’d get up for anything under the two minute warning.”

“Or I did everything right,” he says with a smile. “Sounds to me like I’ve instilled the right priorities in you, kid.”

“Looks like it,” I reply.

He reaches over and wraps his arm around me, pulling me into his side and kissing me hard on the top of the head, and for a moment, it feels like no time has passed at all since the last time we sat at the table having dinner together. Christian glances between us, the look of uncertainty from my father’s comments still clear on his face, but he doesn’t say anything. In fact, he’s mostly quiet for the rest of the dinner, despite the fact that the general conversation between my dad and his family is light and enjoyable. Elliot even takes a few opportunities to talk Christian up a little, which I’m quick to agree with each and every time.

“Yeah, we’ve been sailing since we were real little,” Elliot says, “but Christian’s always been the better of the two of us. He’s more patient than I am, and he’s better at the meticulous stuff, tying knots, making sure the cunningham stays tight, not drinking eight or twelve beers when we’re out at sea. You know, the little things.”

“Is that so?” my dad replies, and he actually looks a little impressed. Definitely more so than when Carrick was talking about GEH. “I’ve never really learned to sail. Montesano is landlocked so we’re mostly limited to lakes and rivers, but I do love to fish though.”

“Christian likes to fish,” I jump in. “He and Carrick and Elliot go all the time. You should join them sometime. He has the most amazing yacht, I think you’d really love it, Dad.”

“Well, if we’re going fishing out on the yacht, we probably won’t take Elliot,” Christian says, and my dad frowns.

“Why not?”

“Jet skis,” Christian’s entire family says in unison, and a broad smile creeps across Elliot’s face as he lifts his hands and rubs them together excitedly.

“It’s almost summer,” he says. “Once Kate gets back from Harvard, we’re going to lift two jet skis off Christian’s yacht, take off into the sound, and never return. Well, until we get low on gas, and then I guess we’ll have to come back or risk a horrible death at sea…”

He laughs but everyone around the table falls quiet and looks over to Gia, specifically me who just had a conversation with her about how she reacts whenever Kate is brought up. Her shoulders rise and fall as she takes a deep breath and then turns to look at Elliot.

“You know, I would go jet skiing with you,” she says calmly, but Elliot just turns to face her with a raised eyebrow.

“You’d get your hair wet,” he argues.

“So?”

“And the life jacket would give you a weird tan line.”

“I’d be spending time with you, Elliot. That’s what matters.”

“Spending time with me? Are you sure? Because it seems to me like your schedule is packed.”

“That was… I already told you…”

“Yeah, I know what you fucking told me,” he says, angry now.

“Elliot,” Gia replies, her voice almost a warning. “Can we talk about this later, please?”

“Why? I thought it was just a business lunch? You have nothing to hide right? I mean, it was a business lunch that I, as your boss, had no idea about and it was with a man my company has never done business with, but it’s completely innocent, right?”

“We talked about this,” she says, her face reddening, “His company his doing a remodel and they were looking for interior designers. They’d already contracted a construction company, this was an independent contract for me, not for Grey Construction.”

“And he just happened to get your name?” Elliot presses her.

“He knows Christian. We met at the GEH New Year’s Eve Charity Ball and I gave him my card. I promise you, it was just a business lunch. I’m not even going to take the contract.”

“Why? If it’s so innocent, why wouldn’t you take the contract?”

“Because obviously you can’t handle it!” she snaps.

Elliot narrows his eyes at her and then turns to look at Christian. “His name is Charles Gresham, you know him?”

“Uh…” Christian stutters, obviously extremely uncomfortable being put in the middle of Gia and Elliot’s sudden and highly inappropriate argument. “Gresham? Yeah, he… he’s an investment banker at Seattle Metropolitan Investing. He manages about 40% of my liquid investments.”

“See?” Gia says. “Baby, it’s just work!”

“An investment banker for a billionaire,” Elliot says ruefully. “Sounds like someone with a lot of money. A lot more money than me.”

“Why would that matter at all?” Gia asks, the frustration finally building enough that I can see tears welling in her eyes. “Elliot, can we please talk about this at home?” His jaw tightens, as do his fingers around his utensils, until eventually he shakes his head, pulls the napkin from his lap, and tosses it onto the table.

“Excuse me.” We all watch, slightly dazed, as he pushes away from the table and storms out of the room. Christian looks, for a second, as though he may get up too, but he stops when Gia practically leaps out of her seat and quickly scurries after him.

“Well, it wouldn’t be a family dinner if at least one of our kids didn’t storm out,” Carrick says with a small laugh, trying to keep the mood light.

“I’m sorry, Ray,” Grace says. “They’re… still figuring things out I think. Are you still hungry? There’s dessert. We have peach cobbler.”

“Uh… that sounds delicious.” my dad answers awkwardly.

“Mia, will you please bring the cobbler in from the kitchen? Mia? Hello, Mia?”

Mia looks up, jerking slightly as she seemingly comes out of her own secluded stupor and stares blankly back at her mother. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Will you bring the cobbler in from the kitchen.”

“Oh… uh… no. I gotta go. I’ve got ballet rehearsal.” She too puts her napkin on the table and slowly gets out of her chair, walking towards the exit of the dining room as though she’s been stunned.

“Take security with you!” Christian calls after her, but she doesn’t respond. She simply shuffles from the room and disappears.

“Make that two kids,” Carrick says.

“Well, I will get the cobbler then,” Grace says, but my dad reaches out to stop her.

“You know, Grace, you’ve been so wonderful tonight, and I can’t tell you when I last had a meal this delicious, but it looks like Ana might be about to fall asleep in her potatoes, so it might be a good idea if we head home.”

“What? No, I’m fine,” I say, shaking my head slightly to try and push some of the exhaustion away, but even as I turn to face my dad, my eyelids suddenly feel so heavy that I’m struggling to keep them open. My mind goes a little foggy and I can feel my body start to sway as I struggle to maintain my balance in my chair.

“Taylor,” Christian calls, waiting only half a second before he steps into the room. “Bring the car around. We’re ready to go.”

“Yes, sir.” Taylor replies. My dad helps me up from the table and I give half-hearted, exhausted hugs goodbye to both Grace and Carrick before we make our way through the dining room towards the entrance hall. As we walk, the fatigue really starts to overwhelm me and soon Christian is half carrying me with the arm he has wrapped around my waist.

“Come here, Ana,” Grace says, pulling me away from Christian for one last hug. “We love you so much, Darling. I’m so happy that you’re safe and back with us.”

“I love you too, Grace,” I reply, trying and failing not to mumble. She squeezes me tightly and passes me back to Christian, and his arms wrapping around me is the last thing I remember until I’m suddenly jolted awake by the sound of my phone vibrating against something hard in the darkness next to me. The sudden change in my surroundings is disorienting because, not only do I have no idea how I got here, I don’t even know where I am. The room is dark and I’m alone, but as I bolt upright and glance down on my phone on the bedside table, I realize I’m in my bed. Christian must have carried me here from the car.

How long have I been asleep?

The vibrating catches my attention again so I reach down for my phone, read Kate’s name flashing across the screen, and take a quick second to note that it’s nearly 10 when I answer, which means that it’s past midnight her time.

“Hello?” I croak.

“Ana Marie,” she slurs over the loud thumping music in the background.

“Rose, Kate. My middle name is Rose.”

“No, I changed it,” she says, and then laughs. “Anaaaaaa, I miss you!”

“I know, Katie. I miss you too.”

“Carter and I have been slaying at beer pong all night and I don’t even have anyone to brag to because my best friend is so far away. You should be here, why aren’t you here?”

“You sound awfully drunk to have been slaying,” I say wryly. “Is Carter having another party?”

“Mhm. We’re celebrating.”

“Celebrating what?”

“I got a letter from the Dean today saying that I’ve been selected as our graduating class valedictorian. I’m going to graduate at the top of our class, Ana! I did it!”

“Oh my god, Kate, that’s amazing! Congratulations!”

“Thank you. I honestly can’t believe it’s really happening.”

“I can. You’ve worked so hard for this. Congratulations, Katie. I’m so proud of you!”

“Ana! Come back here!” she says, pleading now. “Walk with me at graduation. You promised! Start together, finish together, right?”

“Right, but…”

“Oh shit, I’m up. I gotta go, but think about it, okay? No, don’t think about it. Just get your ass to Cambridge. I love you and I want my last eight weeks before I turn you over to Christian and Calliope forever.”

“I love you too, Kate,” I tell her, and then I hear some muffled noises through the phone followed by her yelling Carter’s name and then the long drawn out sound of silence. I pull my phone away and see that the call has ended so I sigh and toss it back onto the nightstand.

The aftermath of the conversation leaves me with a palpable ache in my chest, and it doesn’t take me long to identify that the ache is a little bit of jealousy. Not because she’s been selected for Valedictorian, I really am proud of her for accomplishing that because I know better than anyone how hard she’s worked to earn it. The jealousy is simply that she’s there. She’s out and she’s having a great time and she’s wringing every last experience out of college that she possibly can.

I want that. I want to get back to that, and from what everyone tells me, I can. I just have to make the choice. I could get on a plane, tonight if I wanted to, go back to Cambridge and finish what I’ve been striving for for three years. I could walk with Kate. I could see the look on my dad’s face when they announce my name at graduation. All of my dreams are within the reach of my fingertips and all I have to do is make the choice to go get them. I’m the only thing standing in my way right now. Maybe my problem is that I just need a swift kick in the ass to get me to make the choice to go.

Suddenly, I feel a solid kick right in the center of my belly and it’s hard enough that I actually let out an audible gasp. My hand automatically reaches down to the place where Calliope has kicked me, subconsciously hoping to feel more movement, but there’s nothing. Just a single, encouraging kick, as though she can read my thoughts.

Great, Christian’s right. My daughter is going to get my smart mouth.

A smile creeps across my lips and I take a deep breath and pull back the covers to get out of bed, determined to find wherever Christian is in the apartment and tell him that I’m going to go back to Cambridge tomorrow. But, as I make my way out to the great room,  I pause and duck back in the hallway to stay out of view when I hear him talking to my father.

“She’s not ready.”

“Look, I get that this has been traumatic for everyone,” my dad says. “I don’t like it any more than you do, believe me, but I’m not letting her drop out of school. Our top priority right now needs to be getting her back to Cambridge to finish up these last eight weeks and get her degree. I will not allow this son of a bitch to take that away from her, I’ll go with her if I have to.”

“She needs more time,” Christian argues.

“No, I agree with Captain Steele,” Luke says. “She only has eight weeks, less than that because she’s already missed part of this week and two of those eight weeks are dead week and finals. If she misses much more school, she’s not going to be able to catch up, at least not in a way where she’ll do well on her finals and end her college career the way she wants to. If we don’t do something to get her back there, she’s never going to, and it’ll be the biggest regret of her life. She just needs to be pushed a little, reassured.”

“But can we reassure her?” Christian asks. “How do we know she’s any safer there than she is here? She’ll be exposed on campus…”

“She has a full security detail,” my dad interrupts him, and then under his breath adds, “a little ridiculous if you ask me.”

“She also has a full security detail here, and here we are. I’m not going to put three thousand miles of distance between us when I can’t absolutely guarantee her safety.”

“Can you ever guarantee her safety?” my dad asks. “You don’t think I worried about her every day I was in Iraq, even before any of this happened?”

“Mr. Grey, I know the idea of her being so far away is uncomfortable for you,” Luke interjects. “But you have to understand the circumstances that fell into place for this to happen in the first place. She was alone. She didn’t have her team with her, and that’s not going to happen again. I won’t leave her by herself, not even for a second, I swear to you. We’re going to keep her safe and we have the ability to do that in Cambridge.”

There’s a pause as I imagine Christian mulling over Luke’s promise. “Shouldn’t she have a say in this?” he asks at last. “What if she doesn’t even want to go back to school?”

“I do!” I call, and then immediately curse myself. With a bracing breath, I step out of the hallway and into the great room where the three of them look up at me, clearly surprised. “I do want to go back to school, Christian. Tomorrow, if I can.”

My dad smiles. “Well, there you have it! Don’t you worry, Sweetheart. We’ll have you on the first plane out of here tomorrow morning.”

“Mr. Grey has a plane,” Luke chimes in. “It’s the safest way for her to travel. The staff have been vetted and we have complete control over the flight plan.”

“Well… great,” my dad says. “When can she take off?”

“Wait,” Christian says. “I don’t… Ana…”

“Mr. Grey?” Taylor’s voice interrupts him and we all turn to look at the entryway to the foyer where he’s standing with a manilla envelope in his hand. Christian’s eyes narrow in on it, and then widen with sudden understanding.

“Did you find her?” he asks.

“Miss Williams?” Taylor clarifies, and then shakes his head. “No, I haven’t been able to locate her yet, but I did find Hyun Son.”

“Good, that’s a place to start,” Christian says. “Where is he?”

Taylor’s jaw tightens, then he walks into the great room to stand before Christian on the sofa and tosses the envelope on the coffee table in front of him.

“What’s this?” Christian asks.

“A coroner’s report.”

Christian’s expression shifts as he reaches out of the envelope, and while he flips through the pages inside, Taylor explains what the report contains.

“He was found in the trunk of his car down by an abandoned fish house on the docks with a bullet hole in the back of his head.”

“He was shot?” Luke asks.

“Yes,” Taylor confirms. “Execution style.”

“In Boston?” Luke clarifies, but Taylor shakes his head.

“No, in Seattle.”

Christian grimaces as he looks at the last item in the file, which judging by his expression must be a photo, and then closes the folder. It falls into his lap and he places his forehead in his hands, his elbows resting on his knees.

“Taylor call Boeing, have my plane ready for an 8 AM departure,” he says. “Ana is leaving for Boston in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Taylor? Find Leila Williams.”

“Yes, sir.”

Christian scrubs his hands over his face and tosses the folder onto the coffee table before slowly getting off the couch to walk towards me.

“Come with me. If you’re going to leave in the morning, then this is our last night together for awhile.”

I nod and reach out for his hand, but stop to look back at my dad. “Do you have everything you need? Did Christian show you the guest room upstairs?”

“I’m fine, Annie. Besides, I want to talk to Luke here about a few things. Have a good…” he pauses and his face wrinkles with conflict before he finally settles on. “Sweet dreams, babygirl.”

“Good night, Daddy.”

Christian’s hand tugs against mine and I follow him into our bedroom. Once we’re alone though, he releases me and sits on the edge of the bed, placing his face in his hands again.

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do this, Ana. I don’t know if I can let you go.”

“You’re not letting me go,” I tell him. “Nothing is changing. It’s just going back to normal. I need a little normal right now.”

“Ana…”

I move across the room and drop to my knees in front of him so that I can look him in the eye when I speak.

“I love you, Christian, but I can’t be here right now. Everything here reminds me about what happened and as long as I’m here that’s all I’m going to be able to think about. I need to get away from that, take a break… and I need to get back to doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s going to school. I want to be at school and I think getting back to that and having something purposeful to keep my mind distracted is going to be good for me.”

He looks down at me, staring into my eyes for a long time, until he eventually reaches down to cup either side of my face with his hands and pulls me up to his lips. I return his kiss with eager fervor, basking in the warmth of his lips and letting it wash away everything inside of me except for the love I feel for him and the comfort I find in his touch. I force myself to surrender to the passion of his tongue and his lips until I can’t form coherent thought, and when he pulls away, I immediately climb off the floor and into his lap for more.

“I love you, Ana,” he whispers.

“And I love you.” I reply. He shifts me so that I can lie back on the bed and then moves to my side so that I’m nestled in his arms. I can feel his lips brush softly against the skin on my neck and shoulders, the tip of his nose moving tenderly against my hair while he nuzzles me. Every gentle touch sends a shiver of warm pleasure over me and makes me want more, to be closer to him, despite the fact that my entire body is flush against his.

I moan slightly and arch my back when I feel his fingers trace a soft line up my arm, and as I do, I feel him pressing hard and ready into my backside.

“Oh…”

“I’m sorry, just ignore it,” he says quickly, but I turn around and frown.

“Ignore it?”

He takes a breath. “I know that you need some time. I don’t want to pressure you…” I turn in his arms so that I can cut off his words with my lips. He kisses me back, though not in a way that makes me feel as though this could progress beyond a kiss, so I slowly reach down and grip his erection thorugh his pants.

“Ana…”

“I just want to be close to you, Christian,” I reply. “Please. Love me.”

His eyes search mine, looking for any kind of hesitance, so I try and assuage his concerns by kissing him again. He doesn’t stop me and I press my luck again by moving as though I’m going to climb over the top of him.

“Wait,” he says, holding my hips firm with his hands. “Just… lie back.”

“It’s okay, Christian. I want you.”

“I know. Lie back.”

I glance up into his eyes once more, trying to judge the meaning behind the conflict I see warring there, and then turn once more so that he’s spooning me. His hands reach for the hem of my t-shirt and he slowly inches it up so that his hands can explore my body. Once again, he begins kissing my neck, only this time his fingers slip beneath the cup of my bra and close tightly around my nipple. I gasp and grind into him, desperately seeking friction as the heat begins to bloom between my legs, until I can’t take it anymore, and I yank down the band of my yoga pants and pull them down my legs. He sits up so that he can kiss me while he undoes his fly and while our tongues and harsh breathing all mingle together in a kind of synchronized dance, I feel him slowly slip inside of me.

“Is that okay?” he checks.

“Yes,” I breathe. “Just keep me quiet. I don’t want my dad to hear…”

He turns my face back towards him and thrusts forward again, muffling my cry of pleasure with his lips. Euphoria begins to cloud my mind as he moves in and out of me, slowly, meticulously, building me to the kind of orgasm that goes on and on and burns through my entire body until I feel like I’m flying. I pant through the molten pleasure rolling over every inch of my skin as I finally fall over the precipice into release. His name breaks through my lips and he groans as I continue to cry out my pleasure into his mouth and soon, I feel his thrusts grow sharper until eventually he finds his own release inside of me.

Once the pulsing pleasure dies down, leaving us to bask in the post orgasm haze that is completely absent of all hurt and fear, he turns me back towards him, brushes my hair away from my face, and looks down into my eyes once again.

“I’m coming with you,” he says.

“What?”

“To Cambridge. I’m coming with you. If you need to go, I’m not going to stop you. But being apart from you right now… I can’t handle that. So, I’m coming with you.”

“But GEH…”

“Fuck GEH. You think I care about my company right now? Don’t you understand, Ana? I thought I was going to lose you. I’ve done this without you before and I won’t do it again. None of this means anything without you. ”

“Christian…”

He presses his fingers into my lips to silence me. “It’s only eight weeks. I can work remotely from Cambridge, travel from Boston if I absolutely have to. I can find a way to make it work, but I can’t make 3,000 miles of distance between us work. Not until we know who’s behind this and we’ve done something about it. So I’m coming with you.”

My lips slowly creep into a wide smile. “Okay.”

“Good, then it’s settled.” I nod and after he takes another breath, he smiles too and then leans down to kiss me once more.

“I love you, Anastasia.”

“I love you too, Christian.”

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 29

file

Trauma is strange.

Just a few days ago I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, surrounded by friends and family who loved me. Today, I’m an island. Not because there aren’t people around me. I’m constantly surrounded by doctors, psychiatrists, police officers, my security team, and Christian, but just because there are people physically in my presence doesn’t mean I’m not alone. They all still have the before. I only have the after.

The most notable difference now is time. It’s no longer measured in hours, only when I’m thinking about it, and when I’m not. I spend most of the daytime feeling like a zombie. I can see and hear everything going on around me but it’s very difficult to find meaning in any of it. Like I’m trapped in a bubble and while the outside world continues to go on beyond the invisible shield, I’m stuck inside as some kind of passive observer. Nights are worse though, because while I feel like I’m sleeping during the day, I’m wide awake at night. I lie in bed shaking, unable to stop myself from replaying what happened over and over again, because my nightmares are no longer sequestered to my dreams. My nightmares are all around me.

“Miss Steele?”

I look up and realize that the officer sitting across from me has asked me another question, but I’ve zoned out. Christian squeezes my hand, rubbing his thumb reassuringly across the backs of my fingers, and I try to focus.

“I’m sorry, what?” I breathe back, my voice just as dull and lifeless as it’s been for the past two days.

“Did he make any demands?” the officer, whose name I think is Campbell, asks again. “Did he want you to perform any sexual acts on him? Did he ask for money?”

“No,” I whisper, shaking my head. “No, he just threatened me.”

“What did he say?”

My eyes fall into my lap once more as I hear the harsh voice of the man who attacked me echoing in my ears again.

“He…” I hesitate, losing even more strength to my voice if possible. “He was going to kill me.”

“Did he have a gun?”

“He had a knife. He held it to my throat and…” My voice cuts out as tears prick my eyes and my throat tightens. “He said if I didn’t stop screaming he was going to kill me.”

“Does that explain the wound on your neck?”

“Yes.”

I turn and stare at the picture on the wall while the officer starts making notes. I can feel Christian next to me, silently trembling with rage and anguish. This is the third time we’ve tried to have this interview, and I’ve gotten farther today than I have before, so Christian is hearing these details for the first time. It’s difficult sharing my pain with him because I know he feels it as acutely as I do, but I have no way to comfort him. I want to say to say something reassuring. I want to offer him some words of solace, but I don’t have any to give. So, instead, I stare at the wall and wait for the officer to continue.

“Is there anything at all about him that you’d be able to recognize? His hair color? His skin color? His age?”

“He was wearing a ski mask,” I whisper.

“What about his height? His build?”

The memory I have of the man who attacked me flashes across my mind, as quick and as clear as a cut scene in a movie. For a brief second, I can feel his weight on me again, the moisture of his breath on my face. I can hear his voice and it makes my chest tighten with panic until I feel as though I have to gasp to get enough air.

“I think she’s had enough for today,” Christian says. He reaches out for me in the same slow, careful way that he has since I’ve been in the hospital, but before he can help pull me up out of the chair, the officer stops us.

“I’m sorry, Mr Grey. I understand this is difficult but I need her answers to these questions now, while the memories are fresh, if we’re going to have any hope of apprehending the people responsible for this. Everyday, the trail goes colder.” They stare at each other for a moment, I think testing one another, until Officer Campbell eventually turns to look at me. “Take your time, Miss Steele. There’s no rush.”  

“I only saw the one who was… touching me. There were two of them, but I couldn’t… I couldn’t focus on the other one.”

“That’s okay, just tell us what you can.”

“He was, I don’t know, about the same height as Christian. Bigger though. Heavier.”

“How tall are you, Mr. Grey?”

Christian’s jaw tenses. “6’2.”

“Okay, and what about the girl? This, Leila Williams?”

“She didn’t try to hurt me,” I tell him. “She was the only one who didn’t try to hurt me. She had a taser and when my dog came back to try and protect me, she used it on the man who was holding me against the wall and helped me escape. She helped me hide. She got me out of there and brought me to the hospital.”

“Did she have a car with her, or did she steal a car?”

“She stole it, I think. I don’t know, I didn’t ask. I just needed to get here.”

“And what did that car look like? What was the make? The model? The year?”

“I don’t know. It was older, probably from the 90s… and it was tan. The inside was tan. All of it was tan.”

“We’ll check reports for a stolen car, see if that will give us a place to start.”

“No… I don’t want to press charges against her. She saved me. If it weren’t for her, I would be…”

“I do,” Christian interrupts.

“Christian…”

“Ana,” he cuts me off again, and this time, I can hear the strain in his voice from the patience he’s trying to force. “If she hadn’t been following you all year, keeping tabs on you, learning your vulnerabilities and reporting them back to whoever this fucking psycho is, you would have never been in that situation. She may have gotten you out of it this time, but she’s the reason your life was threatened. She knows who is behind this. I want to press charges.” The furious growl beneath his voice at the end silences me, but as I turn to look down at my hands in my lap, Officer Campbell speaks again.

“Miss Steele, did she give you any indication as to who may have hired her or the men she was with?”

“She said she couldn’t tell me. She said he would kill her. I told her that Christian would protect her…” Christian snorts. “But she said he couldn’t. That we couldn’t even protect ourselves. She said this is… this is just the beginning. They’re going to come after me again.” My voice breaks as tears bubble up through my eyes and spill down over my cheeks. I shake as my breathing rattles in and out of my lungs, and Christian squeezes tightly to my hand again.

“They’re never going to get to you again, Anastasia. I swear to you.”

“We’re going to do everything in our power to keep you safe, Miss Steele,” Officer Campbell agrees, but I know that his words are empty, so I continue to cry.

The interview goes on for hours as I’m forced to repeat every detail I can remember, three or four times. From beginning to end, I tell the story as though I’m there again, observing what’s around me, what’s happening, until I eventually can’t bring myself to speak anymore.

“That’s enough,” Christian says again. “She’s had enough.”

“Of course, Mr. Grey.” Officer Campbell finally agrees. “I think we have enough to move forward from here. We may contact you again, Miss Steele, possibly several times over the next few weeks, while we continue this investigation. But if you think of anything, anything at all, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

“We have your card,” Christian says briskly. He helps me up out of the chair and wraps a protective arm around me as he leads me out of the room. Both Taylor and a hospital security guard are waiting outside the door for us and they walk us back to my room, the room my psychiatrist said he didn’t want me participating in police interviews in so that it could remain a safe place. But it’s not a safe place. Nowhere is.

He, whoever he is, has taken that from me.

I’m in the hospital a total of three days, and I’m actually surprised when the nurse comes into discharge me Thursday morning. I haven’t been sleeping since they brought me here, and it hasn’t gotten any better. The psychiatrist who has had me under observation says it’s PTSD, that it’s common for victims of trauma like mine, but putting a name to the problem doesn’t make me sleep, and without having slept, that nightmarish day feels as though it’s never ended. But the doctor has ruled that I’m not a danger to myself or others, and as long as those aren’t true, they can’t keep me here.

“We could go somewhere,” Christian suggests as he helps me re-pack the bag Gail brought a few days ago. “We could leave the country, stay somewhere in Europe or French Polynesia if you’d rather…”

“And run forever?” I ask, lifelessly, as I hand him a long, thin sweater from the hook on the back of the door. “How do you know he wouldn’t follow us?”

“What do you want?” he asks. “What can I give you, Ana? What can I do?”

I glance up and see the torment reflected in his expression and it tugs at my heart again.

“This wasn’t your fault, Christian.”

“Yeah? Tell that to your mother.”

My stomach clenches as remember the phone call between Christian and my mom the first night I was here. She’d screamed at him for nearly ten minutes, non-stop, blaming him for everything that had happened, telling him that he’d brought nothing but pain and suffering into my life since the day I met him, and that now, if he didn’t let me go, he was going to end of killing me.

“She shouldn’t have said those things to you,” I whisper. “They’re not true.”

“Aren’t they?” he asks.

“No, they’re not.” I try to keep my voice firm, but it’s difficult because I’m still so hoarse. “Christian, this isn’t your fault. You didn’t know…”

“We knew someone was after you.”

“In Cambridge. Seattle was supposed to be safe!”

He shakes his head. “They came after you because of me. They know that you’re the only thing that can hurt me and so they tried to hurt you. Whether it’s my money or something personal, it always comes back to me. You’re a target because of me.”

“You can’t think of it that way.”

“I have no other way to think of it. Fuck, I shouldn’t have gone to work that day. I shouldn’t have left you alone, I shouldn’t have taken the security team to GEH…”

“And I shouldn’t have taken the dog out,” I interrupt him. “Okay, I shouldn’t have gone out by myself, I shouldn’t have chased after Champ when he ran away, I should have had the pepper spray Luke gave me in my hand, I should have had my cell phone, I should have screamed louder, I should have fought harder…”

“Ana,” Christian says, coming around the bed and wrapping me tightly in his arms as I dissolve once again into deep, gut wrenching sobs. “Ana, stop. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Neither did you,” I whisper once I get my breath under control. “So what do we do now? How do we move on from here?”

He swallows and then leans down to place a gentle kiss on top of my hair. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

“He’s there, Christian. Leila said he was there.”

“He’s not. Okay, we’ve searched everything. We’ve changed all the codes, we’ve changed the locks on the service entrance, my team has reviewed all of the security footage from the apartment since Leila went missing before you left school, and we haven’t found anything. You’re safe, and you’re going to be safe, because I’m not going to take anything for granted anymore. I’m not going to make any more assumptions or any more concessions. I will make sure that you’re protected, I promise you.”

“I want Luke,” I tell him. “Not Kommer, not Cardella, Luke. Leila said that the only reason this happened here, this week, was because Luke wasn’t with me. He would have never let me go out like that, he would have been there…”

“I know. Baby, please don’t cry,” he says. “He’s here. Sawyer is at Escala.”

“Okay.” I nod and Christian kisses my hair once more before moving back around the bed, zipping up my bag, and taking it in his hand while reaching for mine. I push myself tightly into his side as we exit the room and this time, it’s not only hospital security waiting for us along with Taylor. Ryan is there and so is Anthony and Cardella, and, as we walk through the halls towards the back entrance of the hospital, they form a tight pack around us.

“Is there press outside?” Christian asks.

“Yes, sir,” Taylor responds.

“Good.”

“Good?” I repeat. “Christian, I don’t want to be photographed…”

“We’ll keep you out of sight, Miss Steele,” Taylor assures me. “But, right now, the press is your friend. They’re witnesses and they draw public attention. No one is going to attack you when you’ve got 30 cameras pointed at you.”

“Oh…”

Christian shrugs out of his jacket as we come to the end of the hallway and throws it over my head, then grabs tightly to the arm not in a sling under the jacket and guides me through the doors. The moment I hear them roll open, there’s a deafening cacophony of clicking cameras and the shouts of reporters.

“Miss Steele, would you like to make a statement to whoever it is that did this to you?”

“Mr. Grey, is she alright?

“How’s the baby?”

I close my eyes shut as tightly as I can under the jacket and try to block it all out until I hear the low sound of a car door being opened.

“Step up,” Christian says.

I reach my hands out and feel the edge of the leather seat and look under the jacket so that I can climb into the back of the SUV. Christian slides in behind me, continuing to hold me tightly to his side as though he’s afraid to let me go for a single second, and the moment the security team has piled in with us, the car starts moving.

I’m covered the entire way home so that, even when I get out of the car to get into the elevator at Escala, the reporters standing on the street can’t get any photographs of me from the sidewalk. Once the doors slide closed though and the new code even I don’t know is entered into the keypad, I tug the jacket off and fold it over my good arm.

“Everyone is here,” Christian says while we make the steady rise up to the penthouse. “I told them I didn’t want anyone coming and overwhelming you at the hospital so they all came here. But if you’re not ready to be around them yet, you don’t have to. We’re going to do this at your pace, Ana.”

“Okay.” I nod.

The doors slide open and, as we step onto the marble floor of the foyer, I glance into the great room and see everyone seated around the giant white couch. A hush falls over the room instantly, and while most of our family waits for me to make the first move, staring at me like I’m a cornered animal or something, Luke jumps off the couch and practically charges at me. I can see, just before he wraps both of his thick arms around my head to hug me, that there are tears in his eyes.

“What were you thinking, you stupid, stupid girl?” he roars angrily, despite the fact that his voice is thick and ladened down with tears. “What did I tell you? What did I say to you before I put you on that plane?”

“I’m sorry,” I sob, breaking down with him. “I wasn’t thinking… I thought Seattle was safe. The dog needed to go out but there was no one here and I- I didn’t think. I’m sorry!”

“You scared the shit out of me,” he says, and then, out of nowhere, he lets me go. I look up and he’s rounding on Kommer. “Where the fuck were you?”

Luke grabs ahold of the front of his jacket and throws him into the wall, and while I watch him hold him there by his shirt so he can get right up into his face, the flashbacks start and I begin shaking.

“Stop,” I whisper, but he doesn’t hear me.

“I leave her alone with you for three goddamn days and this happens? What part of your job don’t you fucking understand? You’re lucky I don’t fucking kill you.”

“Stop!” I scream, as the panicked sobbing starts to overwhelm me. “Stop, please!”

Taylor rushes forward to pull Luke off of Kommer and, as Christian pulls me protectively into his chest, he turns an angry glare on Luke.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he demands.

“Uh… I didn’t mean… Ana, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Enough,” Taylor says, sternly. “Now, we’re all a team here which means we all fucked up that day. I don’t want to hear any blame being thrown around because this isn’t on any one of us, it’s on all of us, and it isn’t going to do any good. It happened, it’s over, now we’re going to make sure it never happens again.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke says bitterly.

“Come on, let’s get you into bed,” Christian says, shooting one last dark look at Luke as he guides me out of the foyer and into the great room. Everyone stands as I approach the couch, even Carrick, who looks like these past few days may have set him back some.

“We appreciate all of you coming,” Christian says. “But I think this might be a little bit too much for Ana right now. She needs some sleep.”

“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Grace says. “We just wanted you to know that we love you and that we’re here for you. For anything you need.”

“Thank you, Grace,” I whisper. Christian turns to lead me back to the bedroom, but as I look away from Grace, I realize, for the first time, that Kate is sitting on the end of the couch. Why is she not in Cabo?

“Kate?”

“Hey, Ana,” she says softly, dashing tears out of her eyes as she gets to her feet. “I came as soon as I got that Google Alert. I didn’t know… I-I… Can I hug you?”

I nod quickly as tears begin leaking over my lower lids and she closes the space between us to pull me into her. She’s the only other person in this room who knows what this feels like, who knows exactly what I’m going through, and to see the pain on her face and to feel her tears dampening my hair is somehow both validating and making everything that happened so much more real, and so much worse.

“I’m so sorry, Ana,” she cries. “I should have put Champ in boarding for the week.”

“No. If it didn’t happen like this, it would have happened another way and Champ saved my life, so… I’m glad he was there. You should be proud, Kate. You’ve got a real attack dog on your hands.”

She breathes out a small, broken laugh, and then pulls back so she can look at my face. “Look at you, making jokes. You’re so strong, Ana. I love you so much and I’m here for you, okay? Whatever you need. Just like you were there for me.”

“If I remember correctly, that involved a lot of you and Ana sharing a bed and not a lot of Ana and I sharing a bed,” Christian interjects, and Kate laughs again.

“Just like it should be,” she says, and she wraps her arms around me again.

“Okay,” Christian says. “Come on, I don’t want you up and around so much. Your blood pressure isn’t going down, remember? You need to be resting.”

I nod and hug Kate one last time before turning to offer a grateful smile to the rest of Christian’s family. Mia also has tears in her eyes, but she manages to smile as I walk away, and it’s then that I realize that Elliot isn’t here. I glance around the room, but don’t see him anywhere, and for Elliot… that feels really strange.

“Where’s your brother?” I ask Christian as he pulls the comforter back for me to climb into bed.

“I told him not to come.”

“Why?”

“Because he would have brought Gia and I thought it would be better if she wasn’t one of the first faces you saw when you got home. I only wanted you surrounded by people who really love you right now.”

“Oh… was he upset that you didn’t want him here?”

“Not really. Apparently Gia is being really melodramatic about this whole thing, worrying if they need their own security now, and Elliot honestly didn’t want to bring any of that in here either. He’s gone through this before with Kate so he understands what you really need right now.”

“What about you?” I ask. “Elliot’s always been such a rock for you. Don’t you need him?”

“I’m fine, Ana. Please, don’t worry about me.”

“I’m not. I mean, I am. I’m not saying that what you’re doing isn’t helpful or that I don’t need you to lean on, but… I just keep thinking about what those few hours must have been like for you. The not knowing…” I swallow back the tears that seem never ending as Christian climbs into the bed next to me. “It would have killed me if it had been you out there.”

“Come here,” he whispers, pulling me into him. I scoot across the sheets and allow him to fold his arms around me while I rest my head against his chest. He holds me there, just holds me, and for really the first time since this happened, I feel like I could sleep. In fact, I’m just about to when Christian’s voice pulls me back into consciousness.

“It was the worst three hours of my life,” he says, so softly his voice is like an echo. “From the second I answered Ros’s phone call until I got the call from the hospital, it was worst three hours of my life. I thought I was never going to see you again. I thought you were dead. I kept replaying that morning in my head over and over again. How I didn’t even really say goodbye to you before I went to work because I didn’t want to wake you. I just brushed your hair out of your face, kissed your lips as softly as I could, and then I left. That would have been our last kiss. Of all the kisses that I can remember so clearly that I can still feel them, that would have been our last kiss and you weren’t even awake. I had no idea when I left that morning that that could have been the last time I ever saw you.”

I look up when I hear his voice break and I see a single tear roll down over his cheek. It takes me by surprise because, for as long as I’ve known Christian, for everything we’ve ever been through together, I’ve never seen him cry. Not when he first confessed to his father about his relationship with Elena, not when I left him after we got back from New York, not after he’d finally admitted that he’d been abused, not even when we were certain he was going to go to prison for Elena’s crimes. Never. My throat constricts as I reach up to wipe away the bead of moisture, and Christian swallows so that he can continue.

“I think the worst part was everything that’s happened over the past few months. The time with you that I’ve sacrificed working as many hours as I did, the dates that I wanted to celebrate with you and didn’t… On October 21st you and I had officially been dating one day longer than we did before you broke up with me the first time. I wanted to give you something or do something for you, even just kiss you as deeply as I could and tell you how much I love you, but you were in Cambridge and I didn’t think it was the kind of milestone you’d want to celebrate, so I didn’t do anything. I let that moment go. Even this weekend we were fighting, or… not fighting, but we weren’t connected the way we are when we’re at our best. When I imagined you, scared and hurt, knowing that this was the end, I was terrified that maybe because I’d been angry with you that you might have had some kind of doubt, in that moment, about how much I really love you. That you were going to go not knowing that you are my entire world.”

“No,” I say with hitched breath. “That thought never crossed my mind. Not even for a second.”

“I love you,” he says again. “I love you more than I can tell you. You are absolutely everything that has meaning in my life and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that a not one more day goes by that you don’t know that.”

I turn so that I can move my body up and reach Christian’s lips with mine, ignoring the ache in my badly bruised elbow as I open my mouth to him. His hand moves up to the side of my face and gently caresses the side of my cheek before slipping into my hair and pulling me tighter into him. His tongue is needy against mine so I kiss him with all the hunger and fervor I can manage in the dissociative state that’s been my life for the past three days, and when we finally break apart, we’re both left panting for air.

“I know how much you love me, Christian,” I whisper against his lips. “Because I feel that same, consuming love for you. I would never forget that.”

“I’m going to help you heal, Ana, I promise. I’m going to find a way to make this easier for you. And I don’t care how many times they tell me it can’t be done, I’m going to find away to give you what I think you need most right now…”

“What are you talking about?” I ask, but he simply kisses me again, not deeply this time, just a series of small, soft pecks against my lips, before he shifts me back into his side.

“Sleep, baby,” he says quietly. “You need to sleep.”

 

The first full day I’m back home doesn’t go very well. I’m in and out of sleep all day, tormented by nightmares that make me relive it all over and over again. It seems like every time I fall asleep, I’ve only just closed my eyes before Christian is leaning over me, shaking me awake while my screams echo through our bedroom. By day two, it’s gotten so bad that he has a doctor come to the apartment to try to give me something to help me sleep. But, between my pregnancy and the complications with my blood pressure that I’m already experiencing, the best he can do is give me 3 milligrams of melatonin, which makes me tired but doesn’t do anything to help with dreamless sleep.

When Sunday finally rolls around, I feel despondent. I lie in the bed that I haven’t left for more than the time it takes to shower or go to the bathroom in three days, drifting in and out of sleep as I run my fingers through Champ’s fur. He came home from the vet yesterday and has been resting with me ever since. He’s healing too, and surprisingly, or unsurprisingly really, Christian doesn’t care at all that the dog wants to lay in the bed with me. In fact, every time he’s come in here to check on me, he takes a second to scratch Champ behind the ears and tell him what a good boy he is.

The dreams start again sometime in the late afternoon, but my brain protectively pulls me out of them before they go too far. I start awake and look around the room with confusion for a moment until I hear the low sound of Christian’s voice coming from the great room.

“She sleeps for a while but she wakes up screaming every time. I’m starting to really worry. She’s pregnant and she can’t sleep, she hardly eats, she hasn’t been out to run, not that I would let her, but..it’s like she’s fading away and I don’t know what to do to make this better for her. I thought I did, I’m trying to get her something that, I’m hoping, is going to at least bring some light back in her eyes, but I’m having more difficulty that I thought and I’m afraid she’s going to waste away before I can make it happen. I don’t know what to do.”

“There’s nothing you really can do,” Elliot’s voice responds. “She’s been through some shit that she’s got to find a way to work through and that takes time. You just have to give her time. Be there for her, let her talk to you, make sure she feels safe, and don’t give up on her. No matter how long it takes.”

“Of course not,” Christian says. “But it’d be a lot easier if I felt like some kind of fucking progress was being made to catch this motherfucker.”

“The police haven’t found anything?”

“No. Leila’s car was found abandoned with no indication where she went, they didn’t pull anything off of Ana’s clothes, and there was so much blood on the dog that all the samples they pulled off him were useless.”

“It’s only been a few days, though. Something could come up. Maybe someone saw something.”  

“Maybe. God, I just can’t stand seeing her like this.”  

“I know. It’s hard. And it’s going to be hard. Is she… is she going back to school?”

“I don’t know. She hasn’t said anything about it and… I hope she doesn’t. I hope she decides not to go, to stay here with me, because I don’t think I could let her go right now. The very idea of her being out my reach is unbearable. No. No, I can’t let her go.”   

“Is that your decision to make?” Elliot asks. “She might feel better if she gets out of the city. I mean, even you said that that girl that saved her told her she’d be safer in Cambridge.”

“You don’t think I can keep her safe? You don’t think I can protect her?” His voice is angry now.

“That’s not what I said,” Elliot says conciliatory, pausing for a moment before he continues. “You okay, Christian? You can talk to me you know.”

“I’m just… I’m so fucking angry. Someone out there tried to take her from me, Elliot. Actually take her from me. Forever. Someone tried to hurt my girl, and now she’s so terrified she can’t even sleep. I keep thinking about him out there, planning this, watching her like some kind of fucking peeping tom, stalking her, and then somehow convincing this group of thugs that he has at his disposal to put aside their humanity enough to grab a pregnant woman off the street, harm her, and threaten to murder her and her child. Every time I think about it, it makes me murderously angry. I could kill him, Elliot. I want to kill him.”

“I know. I know exactly how angry you are. I went through this too, knowing there was someone out there who wanted to do horrible things to the woman I loved, and that anger can’t be quantified. It makes you irrational. It makes you want to do stupid things and none of that is going to help her. So I’m going to say the same thing to you that you said to me.”

“Yeah? What was that?”

“That this is the time when you have to put your shit aside and really step up and be a man. You don’t get to sit here and be angry, you don’t get to go out and do something reckless to try and get revenge, because she is all that matters right now and she needs you. You have to let her dump everything onto you and just be whatever she needs you to be, carry it for her as much as you can. You have to be the strong one and if it’s too much, you come to me. You can complain to me, you can scream at me, hell we can put on some pads and you can throw punches at me, whatever you need, but when it comes to her, you never let her see you struggle because this is not about you. This isn’t about what you’re going through. This is going to be worse for her than it was with Kate because when that psycho came after her that night with the gun, Kate wasn’t alone. She didn’t see what happened, she didn’t have to fight to get away from him, and when that night was over, it was over. Ana was alone, and Ana did have to fight. Whoever this fucker is is still out there and she’s gotta be terrified. You have to make her feel safe now. Especially because she’s gonna have a baby to take care of in a couple months and she needs to be strong enough to do that.”

“I know. And I want to carry anything I can for her. I wish I could take it all. I’m not going to fail her like this ever again. I’m going to keep her safe. I’m going to heal her. And I’m going to find out who he is and when I do, I’m not going to fuck with police or my security team, I’m going to hunt him down myself and beat him to fucking death.”

“And I’ll hold him down for you.”

“Thanks, Elliot.”

“So, how’s work going? How are you dealing with all of that and being here? You haven’t been able to stop working for months but Mom says you haven’t left the apartment since Ana got home.”  

“I’m not doing anything,” Christian says. “Ros is back.”

“Ros? Really? How’d you manage that?”

“It wasn’t hard, it’s what she wanted. But I’ll tell you this, I don’t think I’ve ever gravelled to anyone the way I did to Ros that first night Ana was in the hospital.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just felt so stupid, being played like that. That’s what Elena used to do, like with that photograph she took of Harrington and Ana back in our freshman year. It’s like this fucker knows each and every one of our vulnerabilities, and exactly how to exploit them. Ros has never done anything to make me distrust her and the second my trust was tested, I turned on her. And when she was gone, and everything was up to me, I saw how much she really does for me. How much of my life and happiness is subsidized by her willingness to give up her time and to work for this company like she owns it. So, I begged for forgiveness for a while, and then I gave her a new title, a higher salary, and called the lawyers to start dividing up assets so that I can gift her a 25% ownership stake in the company.”

“Wait, you’re gifting her part of GEH?”

“Yeah. I’d originally proposed 80/20 but she negotiated to a quarter stake. She’s good.”

“Wow,” Elliot says. “What about Welch? Is he coming back too?”

“Welch is more difficult,” Christian admits. “We made an offer and he rejected it. Apparently he has some bad feelings about what happened and he’s got a new job now. Ros is counter offering, hoping she can draw him back with more money, but I’m going to call him personally later. I think I know what he really wants.”

“And what’s that?”

“Patent rights.”

“Wait… what?” Elliot exclaims. “Christian, you can’t give him that! Your technology division is the most profitable part of your company. You depend on those…”

“Obviously, not exclusive rights,” Christian interrupts him irritably. “But a clause in his contract stating that he will be adequately compensated for anything he develops under the GEH brand if he ever chooses to terminate his employment.”

“Wow, that’s… generous.”

“I need him. I think that’s what this whole thing has taught me, Elliot. I can’t do this on my own anymore. I can’t be an island. I need people around me, people I can trust and people I can depend on.”

There’s a pause.

“You have no idea long I’ve wanted to hear you say that,” Elliot says, and I can hear his smile in his voice. There’s a muffled clapping sound, which could be either a handshake or a hug, followed by the muted ping of the elevator.

Champ growls and I grip his fur with my fingers as my body stiffens and I listen as acutely as I can.

“Hey, Christian,” Kate’s voice says after a long beat of silence. “Oh… Elliot. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here.”

“No,” Elliot responds. “Don’t be sorry, I’m happy to see you. Come here.” She lets out a soft, pleasant sounding, half-laugh and then there’s silence while, I assume, they hug. “How have you been?” Elliot continues. “Are you going back to school?”

“Yeah, I’m on my way to the airport right now, I just wanted to stop in and check on Ana before I go.”

“She’s sleeping,” Christian says. “Don’t wake her.”

What? No. “Kate!” I call, and almost immediately, I hear the sound of her shoes cross the great room and come up the hallway towards the bedroom.

“Ana?” Kate says softly as she pushes open the door, and I prop myself up so that I can talk to her or hug her if I want to. She closes the door behind her and then crosses the room to plop down on the bed next to me and gives me a sad kind of smile.

“How are you doing, babe?”

I shake my head. “Not good. I can’t stop reliving it. Every time I close my eyes, I see that alley. I can still hear his voice, smell his breath…”

“Feel his touch on your skin,” Kate finishes for me and I look up at her in shock. “That never goes away. At least it didn’t for me.”

“How do you do this, Kate? How do you just… go on?”

“You make a choice,” she says. “It gets easier. You’ll never forget but, eventually, you’ll start thinking about it less. At first, you’ll make it a whole hour, then an afternoon, then a day. Sometimes now I go weeks without thinking about it, but I’ll never forget. The choice you have now is about you and your life. You can move on, learn the lessons about never taking a day of your life for granted that sound cliche but end up being true, or you can let the fear have you. But if that’s what you choose, then he wins. Then he did kill you that day, because he’s taken your future from you.”

My face crinkles as I hang my head again, and I feel her arms wrap around me.

“I’m not saying that you’re weak. You’re not, Ana, you’re very, very strong. And I’m not saying you need to put this behind you today. But the sun is going to rise tomorrow. Days are going to pass, the seasons are going to change… In a few short months, you’re going to give birth to my goddaughter. You have so much to look forward to, so much to be grateful for, and so many people who love you. Those are the things that are going to get you through this so don’t forget about them, okay?”

“I won’t,” I promise.

“So… I don’t see a suitcase. Are you, I mean… are you coming back to Cambridge?”

I swallow, take a deep breath, and then slowly shake my head. “I can’t. Christian needs me here. He needs to be close to me right now and see that I’m safe and okay, and he can’t come to Cambridge.”

“But what about school? There’s only eight weeks left, we’re almost done…”

“I know. Maybe I’ll see if I can finish from here, or maybe get a few weeks academic leave and then decide if things have calmed down enough for me to come back. I just can’t leave him right now.”

She looks like she has more to say, but instead she presses her lips together and takes a moment to think about her words carefully before she speaks. “That’s your decision, but I hope you change your mind. I know what Harvard means to you, Ana, and I’d hate to watch you let it slip away from you now that you’re so close.” I frown but don’t respond, and Kate leans over, kisses me on the forehead, then turns to scratch Champ behind the ears.

“I can take him with me if that’s what you want,” she says. “But if you want him here, you can keep him for as long as you need.”

“Thanks, Kate. I want him to stay.”

“Okay. Well, I should go. I don’t want to miss my flight.”

“I’ll walk you out.” I climb out of bed, hook my arm through hers, and walk with her back out through the great room. Christian and Elliot watch us cautiously as we approach, but when Kate stops and smiles at Christian, he gets off the couch to hug her.

“Call me if you need anything,” he tells her.

“Thanks, Christian. I’ll see you soon. Take care of my best friend, okay.”

“I will.”

“Elliot.” Kate turns to him and gives him a wistful kind of smile before she steps forward and squeezes him tightly. “It was really good seeing you. You should… you should call me sometime. We should catch up.”

“I’d really like that,” Elliot says. “Have great time at school, Katie. Knock ‘em dead.”

“You know I will.” She smiles and then reaches back for me to go the rest of the way to the elevator with her. While we wait for the doors to slide open, she hugs me again.

“Call me every day,” she says. “And Skype me whenever you can. We should watch movies together, and Grey’s on Thursdays.”

“I will,” I promise.

She pulls back and wipes away the tear rolling down her cheek as the ping of the elevator’s arrival sounds around us.

“I love you, Annie.”

“I love you too, Katie.”

Her fingers squeeze mine and then slowly drag away. I stand there, staring after her as she steps into the elevator and then disappears, going where I should be going. Leaving me behind.

“Oh, Miss Steele,” Taylor says, looking almost surprised when he comes out of the security office. “I’m sorry, I waited… I was trying not to startle you.”

“That’s fine, Taylor. You didn’t.”

“Good,” he says, and then he nods and heads back into the great room. “Mr. Grey? I have the phone records for Miss Matteo that you requested.”

“Matteo?” Elliot asks. “Gia? You’re checking up on Gia?”

“Leila told Ana that whoever’s doing this has access to Escala, which means they have the elevator code. There are very few people who have that code, Elliot.”

“Okay, so are you checking into my phone records too? Into Mia’s?”

“Do you think it’s likely that Mia is the one coordinating with someone who’s trying to murder my fiancé?”

“About as likely as it is to be Gia,” Elliot snaps back.

“Then she shouldn’t have anything to hide,” Christian says.

“Sir, he’s right…” Taylor interjects. “I went through her phone records, her texts, her email communication, her credit card statements, and her bank accounts. There’s nothing out of the ordinary that suggests she has had contact with anyone who has the kind of capabilities we’re dealing with, unless she has another phone that we aren’t aware of.”

“Does she another phone?” Christian asks, turning to Elliot, and his face immediately turns a fiery red.

“No, she doesn’t,” he says coldly. “She’s not the villain, Christian, no matter how much you want her to be. All she wants is to be received into this family, the way that Kate was, the way that Ana is. Why can’t you accept that?”

“Because someone gave out those codes, Elliot.”

“Well it wasn’t her,” he snaps, and he rips the records out of Taylor’s outstretched hand and stalks to the elevator. Christian sighs, and Taylor lets out a low cough.

“I’ll uh… I’ll get you another copy, sir.”

“Thank you, Taylor,” Christian says. “Any word on…?”

He nods. “In transit. We should expect arrival tomorrow morning sometime.”

“Good. Thank you, Taylor.”

“You’re welcome, sir.” He nods to me and then turns to leave while Christian reaches out for my hand so that he can pull me into him.

“How are you feeling?” he asks.

“Like the world is spinning too fast for me to hold on anymore.”

“Then let me slow it down for you.” He leans down and kisses me, slowly, tenderly, so that warmth washes over my entire body. “Are you hungry?” he asks when he pulls away.

“No.” I shake my head.

“I really wish you’d eat. You have to eat, Ana…”

“I’m not hungry,” I repeat. “I’m tired. I’m going to go back to bed.”

“I’ll be in in a minute,” he sighs, and I nod as I worm out of his arms and make my way back to our room.

 

It’s another mostly sleepless night for me, until the morning starts to creep in through the windows and the shadows of dreams begin to dance across my eyes. For the first time in a long time, I don’t immediately see the entrance to that alley behind my eyelids, so I nestle deeper into my pillow and let sleep have me.

It’s wonderful. Peaceful. There’re no screams, no sharp spikes of pain, or cold whispers in the dark. There’s only warm sunlight shining down on my face, fine white sand curling around my toes, and the gentle rumble of the tide washing in and out.

“There you are,” Christian’s voice says behind me, and I blink through the sunlight until I find him standing over my towel with two cold tropical drinks in his hand.

“My hero,” I reply, taking the blue drink that matches the crystal clear color of the water.

“You look like you’re getting too much sun,” he says. “Let me help you.”

He nestles down on the sand behind me, picks up a bottle of sunscreen, and squeezes a dab into his hand. I watch, fascinated, as he rubs his palms together before he places them on each of my shoulders and begins to massage me.

“Mmm, that feels nice.”

“Good.” His lips press into the slender part of the back of my ear. “I only ever want to make you feel good.” I moan as his lips are quickly replaced by his tongue and he begins tracing a line down my earlobe to my neck. Once he starts to nibble and suck on the sensitive skin there, I place my drink in the sand and turn to kiss him. His lips are warm and his tongue gently teases mine. I move my hands up into his hair and tug gently, making him moan too.

“Oh, Ana,” he says. “Ana. Ana. Ana!”

I wake up with a start, see Christian leaning over me fully dressed, and groan. The light coming through the windows is entirely too bright for the early morning, so I must have been sleeping for a while, but not long enough to feel well rested.

“Wake up, baby,” Christian whispers.

“No,” I groan.

“I have something for you. Something I hope is going to make you feel a little better.”

“Is it a fruity cocktail and a warm beach?” I ask.

“No,” he laughs.

“Then I choose sleep.”

“Trust me, baby. You want to wake up. There’s someone here for you.”

Someone?” I check.

“Yes, someone. Wait here.”

“It’s not another doctor is it?” I check as he turns to leave the room, but he just shakes his head and disappears through the door. I groan and think maybe I’ll just go back to sleep anyway, try to salvage the dream Christian ripped away from me, and I almost think that I have when I hear the next voice.

“Annie?”

My body freezes. I slowly pry open my heavy eyelids and then feel my mouth pop open with complete and utter shock when I see the man standing in the doorway, still dressed in his army green fatigues.

“Daddy?” I whisper, and he smiles.

“Hey, baby girl.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 28

7e0796a234c0d4624db74557fbae45ca

The following is intended for mature audiences and may contain material that is not suitable for some readers. Discretion is advised.

Kate sits by my side with a pad of paper to take notes for thank you cards while I open gifts, and before we even make it to the presents my family has purchased, she’s already filled two pages. Receiving gifts like this has a whole other kind of meaning when you’re not in need, the gesture becomes purely about love and support, and after the year we’ve had, experiencing that reassurance over and over again has me feeling slightly overwhelmed.

When I finally get to the gifts from my family, I start with the packages from Grace because I think she might spontaneously combust if I don’t. It takes nearly thirty minutes for me to unwrap everything and in the end she’s given us dozens of clothes, high tech video baby monitors, the most advanced stroller on the market, a year subscription to a diaper service that delivers clean cloth diapers daily and packs away the used ones to be laundered, an entire pack of bibs that all have some variation of Grandma Loves Me Most written on them, and a gown for the baby’s christening.

I give Christian a sideways glance as I pull the white gown and hat from the box, and he rests his hand reassuringly on my knee before turning to his mother and thanking her. While I also offer my thanks and get off the floor to hug her for everything, I wonder if the whole baptism thing is something Christian and I will talk about or if that’s not my choice to make just because Grace is Catholic. The latter I’m not sure I’m comfortable with…

Next I open Gia and Elliot’s gift, and I’m actually surprised by how much I love the floral printed Roberto Cavalli diaper bag. It’s white with pastel flowers all over it and black impressionist drawings of birds and butterflies. It’s so cute that it’s actually something I would happily carry around as a purse, and as I examine everything, I find that it’s also very functional.

“Thank you, Gia,” I tell her, sincerely.

“You’re very welcome, Anastasia,” she replies, and for the first time I don’t really hear any bitterness or resentment in her voice. She smiles at me and I smile back, until Elliot interjects.

“Thank you, Gia?” he repeats, as though he’s hurt. “You think this was Gia’s idea? You think I didn’t walk into Roberta Cav-a-lee all by myself, look at that purse thing, and say to myself, that’s exactly what Anastasia needs for my new niece?

“Surprisingly, I don’t,” I say wryly.

He holds his hand to his chest and lets his mouth fall open with fake shock, but Gia rolls her eyes and turns back to me.

“Elliot’s gift is inside.”

The corner of my mouth upticks and I reach into the bag. When my fingers close around some kind of soft fabric, I pull it out, and, once I read the print on the onesie he’s bought for us, I give him a hard, sardonic look, shake my head, and then toss it to the floor.

“What is it?” Christian asks, picking it up and turning it towards him so he can read the text that says:

My Dad is a Mother Fucker

“Real nice, Elliot,” Christian says, balling up the onesie and tossing it at his brother, who is almost beside himself with laughter. I roll my eyes and reach for my mother’s gift, which ends up being a beautiful homemade quilt for the baby’s nursery.

“Thank you, Mom,” I tell her as I squeeze her tightly against me. “It’s gorgeous. I love it so much.”

“You’re very welcome, Ana,” she says. “I was hoping to stitch the baby’s name into the blanket but…”

Her voice trails off airily as Christian and I look at each other, and I bite down on my lip, trying to hold back a smile.

“Actually, Christian and I decided on a name. Just now.”

“Amelia?” Mia chirps excitedly. I laugh and shake my head, then turn to Christian.

“Do you want to tell them?”

“No, you go ahead.”

“Okay. Christian and I have decided to name her Calliope, after the Greek goddess of eloquence and poetry.”

“Oh,” Grace coos. “Oh, that’s so beautiful!”

“Thank you,” I smile at her.

“Cal…” Elliot begins, his voice trailing of as if he’s having trouble with the word.

“Kah-Lie-Oh-Pee” Christian says, over phonetically, but Elliot doesn’t seem any more pacified.

“So, Callie then?” he asks, and when Christian shakes his head the look of satisfaction on Elliot’s face at finding another easy way to irritate his brother becomes obvious.

“What’s her middle name?” Carter asks, though the curiosity in his question is very quickly replaced with something much more awkward once he catches Elliot’s very irritated glare.

“Katherine,” Christian says. “Calliope Katherine.”

I turn to look at Kate and watch the pouty look of adorable-overload slowly melt off her face until her expression is entirely blank.

“Katherine?” she repeats. “Like… after me?”

“Yes,” I reply, beaming at her. “After you. It was Christian’s idea.”

A huge grin slowly creeps across her face and her eyes turn glassy as she throws herself forward, bypassing me and wrapping her arms tightly around Christian’s neck.

“Uh…” Christian says uncomfortably, his whole body tensing under the sudden, unexpected contact.

“I know, I know,” Kate says, through her tears. “You don’t like people touching you, but just deal with it for a second, okay? Thank you, Christian!”

Slowly, Christian relaxes, and even reaches around to hug her back, and as he turns to whisper something private into her ear, Gia gets out of her seat.

“Excuse me,” she huffs, and storms out of the room.

“Gia?” Elliot calls after her, but when she doesn’t stop or turn around, he sighs. “God damn it,” he says, groaning as he gets off the floor and disappears after her.  

“Are we supposed to wait for her?” Mia asks, annoyed, but Grace shakes her head.

“No, this day is about Ana, not Gia. Go ahead, dear. I think those ones are from Mia.”

I smile and take the gift bags next to the blanket my mother made for us. Mia’s gifts are mostly clothes, though I’m obsessed with the tiny Dior peacoat she’s found, and once Christian and I have both gotten up to thank her properly, I move on to my last gift, which is from Kate.

“Baby’s first Chanel,” I say airily as I slide the pale pink ribbon off the black box in my lap. She smiles at me.

“I thought she could wear this home from the hospital.”

“Really?” I start digging through the white tissue paper inside, and when I find the tiny infant sized onsie, pants, and socks that are all covered in Seahawks logos, my eyes widen with excitement.

“You know me so well!” I chirp, and then pull her into me, giggling as we hug each other.

“There’s real Chanel back at the house,” she promises. “I just thought you’d like this more.”

“Is it bad if I agree with you?” I ask, and we both laugh again.

With everything unwrapped, we begin packing what we can into the car or into the nursery upstairs, and then hug and kiss everyone but Kate and Carter good-bye, thanking them again before we go. I feel calm as we make the drive back to Escala, content, and above all else happy. Before Christian, I had my mom and Bob, and I had Ray, but that was the entire extent of my family. Christian has given me so much more than that, imbibed my life with so much more love and support, and to see it all on display today leaves me with a resounding sense of peace.

At home we have dinner with Kate and Carter and then spend a few hours seated around the huge white couch in the living room, listening to the horror stories of Elliot and Carter’s stand off all afternoon and the endless barrage of questions Elliot threw at him, until Christian finally decides he’s had enough with company and drags me back into the bedroom to be alone. I’m still in the flowy pink dress Kate put me in this afternoon, so my first priority is to strip it off in favor of some sweats and one of Christian’s t-shirts, but I’ve only just gotten out of the dress when I feel his arms wrap around me from behind.

“Did you enjoy your shower?” he asks, and I hum my approval as I turn to face him.

“Very much. There’s a lot of love in this family.”

“Well, you’re very easy to love.” He leans down to kiss me but, as he begins pulling me back towards the bed, another thought pops into my mind and I stop him.

“Um… Ros was there this afternoon.”

He frowns. “Ros? Why?”

“I don’t know, I guess Kate invited her.”

He lets out a very unattractive snort as he turns away from me and makes for his dresser, and I bite down on my lip nervously as I watch him go.

“She, uh… she and I talked a bit,” I begin. “She kind of told me some things that I want to talk to you about.”

“Oh, I’m sure she told you a lot of things,” he replies bitterly. “She’s never been short on things to say.”

“Christian, I think you should listen to her. She told me she didn’t send those emails and when I listened to what she had to say… I– I believe her.”

“You believe her because she’s a professional con-artist. Her job is to sell a shitty deal like it’s the chance of a lifetime and she’s very good at it. It’s why I’ve kept her around so long. I bought her lies too, but I won’t be that naive again.”

“That’s harsh, Christian. She was your best friend, don’t you think you owe her…”

“I don’t owe her a goddamn thing, Anastasia,” he interrupts me, angry now. “I gave that woman everything and she betrayed me. She was just using me as a stepping stone to get power. Does that sound like a friend to you?”

“But that’s the thing, Christian, I don’t think she was. She told me that she talked to Welch and…”

Welch?” he snaps, interrupting me again. “The man who tried to have me ousted from my own company? You think that makes any of this better?”

“Will you please just listen to me?”

“No, I don’t want to talk about Ros Bailey, Anastasia. I’m done with her. I’m done with Welch, I’m done with all of it.”

“But what if you’re wrong?”

“I have the proof, Ana.”

“You have emails on a server that god only knows who has access to. She said she thinks GEH has been compromised, what if she’s being set up?”

“I have the best technology team money can buy, Anastasia. That server is very well protected.”

“By who, Welch? He was the first one gone, wasn’t he?”

“Do you think I don’t know how to run a company? Is that how you see me? Incompetent?”

“No, I just… I-I just…”

Christian’s jaw tightens and he presses his lips together in a thin line. “I’m done having this conversation. I’m gonna…  go check my email.”

“Christian…” I say, but he ignores me, turning instead for the door and disappearing into the hallway. I let out a heavy sigh but decide it’s better to try again tomorrow rather than follow him into his office and continue to pester him, so instead I turn out the lights and crawl into bed.

I fall asleep before he returns.

 

Kate and Carter leave early the next morning for Cabo, but being alone together doesn’t make Christian want to talk about Ros any more than he did on Saturday night. So, once he and the team have gone into work on Monday morning, I make a plan to get Christian to talk to Ros whether he likes it or not. Still, I find myself walking through the apartment, checking around corners and peering into rooms people don’t even go into before I make the call.

“Hey, Ana,” Ros answers. “How are you?”

“I’m good. I was just calling to let you know that… well, I tried to talk to Christian.”

“And he wouldn’t listen to you,” she guesses with a sigh.

“No.”

“It was a long shot, but I had to try. God, he’s so fucking stubborn. I don’t know what I’m going to do, Ana.”

“Ros, I think I can help you. But if you’re lying to me…”

“Ana, I swear to you. Look, I know how it looks and I can understand, given everything he’s been through, why he doesn’t trust me. I mean, after Elena Lincoln, I can’t imagine he trusts anyone really… But you know me. You know that I stood by him during the hardest times of his life, that I fought tooth and nail to not let any of the things that happened in his personal life last year affect his company so that he wouldn’t lose it, that I’ve sacrificed my time and sometimes my sanity to be a support system for him and to make sure he was able to spend as much time with you as possible while you were at school this year. I’ve been his confidant, I’ve been his punching bag, I’ve been his best friend. Why would I defect now when everything was finally going so well?”

“I know,” I concede. “And it’s for those reasons that I want to trust you, but if I let another person into his life who is just going to let him down…”

“Then you’ll lose his trust too,” she finishes for me. “I know what I’m asking you, and if it’s too much, then I’ll understand if you don’t want to help me. But I promise, Ana, I just want my job back. I just want my life back.”

I take a deep breath. “Okay. Anthony and Cardella are in a meeting at GEH right now about the new security protocol for when they move into the new building. Cardella is supposed to be back in an hour, but if you can get here before she does then you can wait for Christian here. When he gets home, the two of you can sit down and talk.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Oh my god, thank you so much, Ana. I’ll come right now.”

“The elevator code is 040410. Hurry,” I tell her, but the only response I get is the clicking of the phone as she hangs up.

“Okay,” I say aloud, trying to reassure myself as I work through everything I need to do before Christian gets home now. Food is probably a good place to start, he’s always in a better mood after he eats and thankfully, I know his favorite meal. I make my way to the kitchen and pull some chicken out of the freezer to thaw and then make my way back to Christian’s wine stores to find his favorite bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. If food won’t do the trick, surely alcohol will…

I’m just going through the cupboards to see if I’m going to have to send Gail out this afternoon to get anything for the dish I have planned when I hear Champ’s paws scraping against the marble floor, and then the following scratching sound against the glass wall.

“Champ,” I call, but the the scratching continues. With a sigh, I close the cupboard and walk around the counter. When he sees me, he starts whining so I lean down to scratch him behind the ears.

“Do you need to go potty, buddy?” I ask, and his ears perk at the familiar word. I smile, stand, and then pat my leg to get him to follow me to the foyer, where I hook his leash through his collar and drag him with me into the elevator.

There isn’t a ton of great options for my backyard loving dog to find a place to relieve himself in the concrete jungle of downtown Seattle, so I end up taking him up the block a couple times, trying to guide him to the few patches of dirt that surround the trees on the edge of the sidewalk. But now that we’re outside, he’s much more interested in following the smells of the new city than trying to find a place to go to the bathroom.

“Come on, Champ,” I say impatiently, but he seems to care very little about my priorities right now. After sniffing the side of a newspaper machine, he begins moving down the sidewalk again, nose pressed to the ground, dragging me along behind him. I yank back on his leash, trying to get him back onto the dirt patch, but he’s stronger than I am and more determined. So when a stray cat pokes it’s head out of the alley just across the street from the corner we’re standing on, I don’t stand a chance of holding him back.

“Champ!” I shout over his barks that echo over the sound of car horns and surprised screams around me. “Fuck!”

I shoot an apologetic glance at the woman with her young daughter walking up the street next to me and then sprint into the street after him, thinking the whole time what a weird paradox I’ve suddenly found myself in. The cat is faster than Champ is but Champ is committed, which means that they’re just getting farther and farther away with every passing second and there’s no sign of Champ slowing down. On the other hand, I think if Champ were to catch the stupid cat, which would be the only thing to make him stop, the resulting carnage would give me nightmares for weeks. I’m not sure which option I want to happen least…

“Champ!” I call again, but nothing.

The cat takes a sharp left turn into an alley, now several blocks away from my apartment, and they both disappear, leaving me with only the sounds of Champ’s barking to follow.

“Shit, shit, shit,” I say as I round the corner and find that they’ve already made it around another corner at the end of the alley. I’m going to lose him. I’m going to lose Kate’s dog the first day she trusted me to watch him. Gritting my teeth together, I run up the alley and then make the decision to turn right, towards the echoing sounds of Champ’s barks, and it ends up being a mistake.

Standing there, watching me at the end of the alley, is Leila Williams.

“Leila?” I say, through the panting breaths that seem harsher now that they’re mingled with a sudden spike of fear. “What… what are you doing here?”

“I told you that you had to be careful,” she says. “I told you he was always watching.”

It’s like her words have a direct line to whatever part of the brain triggers terror and as she takes her first step towards me, I back away and instinctively place my hand over my baby bump. But when I turn and find that the path directly behind me leads to a dead end, and that the alley I just ran up is now occupied by two very burly looking men walking up towards me, each pulling ski masks over their face, that terror turns to hysteria.

“No!” I scream. “Help! Help!”

The men start sprinting at me and I turn to run, but I’m trapped. There’s nowhere to go and instead of my mind sharpening in this moment of absolute panic and helping me sort through what to do, it goes completely blank. I’m a shaking mess as I hear them come around the corner at me, helpless to do anything but scream.

I try to jerk away the moment I feel the first set of hands on me, but I’ve only just slipped out of his grip when I feel the second set. They quickly take hold of my arms and legs, and no amount of kicking or struggling can break me out of their grip as they drag me to the wall. There’s a weird sense of deja vu as I feel the same horror that has woken me up on countless nights because of this exact scenario, but it’s not a dream this time. Christian isn’t going to wake me up. This is really happening, and the feeling of fear is so intense my vision starts to blur.

“Shut the fuck up, bitch,” one of them growls at me.

“Please, please don’t hurt me. My fiance has money,” I say, going immediately to pleading. “Lots of money. He’ll give you whatever you want if you let me go. Just please, please don’t do this. I’m pregnant. Please!

“What part of shut the fuck up don’t you understand?” he demands. He moves his hand up to cover my mouth but I twist my face out of his reach.

“Help!” I scream again, using so much force it feels as though I’ve ripped something in my throat. “Please, help me!” He grabs my face and shoves my head back into the brick wall, temporarily dazing me while his hand secures around my mouth. The pain from the blow is so intense, I almost don’t hear what he says next.

“You want to die today?” he asks, but all I can do is whimper in response. “Then shut. The fuck. Up.”

His partner releases me, leaving only the man threatening me to hold my body against the wall, so I try again to struggle out of his grip but it’s no use. He’s insurmountably stronger than I am. Tears begin pouring down my face as I watch the man no longer holding me pull a backpack around to his front and then reach inside to remove a bunch of long, thick cable ties. I jerk my body again and scream into my captors hand, but the sound is too muffled. I doubt Leila, standing only 20 or so feet away, can hear me, let alone anyone on the noisy street.  

There is an almost instinctual severity to the fear the sight of the cable ties brings out of me, one that tells me that I need to get away from him, that I need to do everything in my power to prevent them from getting those cable ties around me, because if they are able to successfully restrain me and get me out of this alley undetected, I know, in the deepest part of my soul, that I won’t make it out of this. There is an overpowering certainty growing inside my gut that tells me that these men don’t just want to harm me, they’re going to kill me. They’re going to use me to torture Christian, probably get money out of him, but they will have no intention of ever letting me go. Leila let me see her, which means they can never let me talk to the police. If I ever have any hope of holding my baby in my arms, of seeing the man I love ever again, I have to get out of this alley. Now.

“Give me her arms,” the man holding the cable ties says. The man pinning me to the wall shifts his hold on me to bring my hands together, and it means my mouth is free again. I scream as loudly as I can, ignoring the intense pain in my throat, but it only lasts a second before he’s silencing me again.

“Do you think I’m fucking around?” he asks menacingly, leaning in so closely I can feel his hot, wet breath on my face. His body presses into me, holding me to the wall while his hand moves down to his pocket. The next thing I know, I feel the sharp, cold edge of a steel blade against the skin on my throat. “If you make another fucking sound, I will cut this baby out of you and leave it on Grey’s fucking doorstep.”

A horrible gut wrenching sob explodes out of me as the tears of fear begin pouring down my face. I continue to try and struggle out of his grip, but I can’t. Still, my unwillingness to cooperate seems to be wearing on him. He increases the pressure of the blade against my skin and I scream as I feel hot, wet blood drip down over my throat.

“Don’t fucking move,” he says. “Don’t make a fucking sound, or you will die.”

He moves his hand from my mouth but I don’t scream this time. Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t. The fear has my throat so tight, it feels as though I can’t breathe. I stand there bawling, the rough surface of the brick behind me scraping my arms as I continue thrashing violently against his grip. My eyes dart through the alley, praying for a miracle, and when I see Leila coming towards us again, I do the only thing I can think to do.

“Please, Leila,” I sob. “Please help me.”

The man holding me down lifts my wrists as his partner unfurls the first of the cable ties, but as he reaches forward to wrap it around me, I suddenly hear a loud, vicious sounding snarl and something big and tan streaks past me. The man with the cable ties is forced to the ground, Champ’s huge paws pinning him to the asphalt while he growls, snarls, and barks in his face.

“Fuck,” the man holding me says. I start to struggle again now that his attention is diverted, but he shoves me hard back into the wall once more, making everything around me dim for a split second as my head impacts with the wall again, and turns to Leila.

“When is that fucking van getting here?” he demands. “Help me tie her up!”

She swallows and then steps towards us, holding her arm out like she’s going to try and help hold me down, but her hand doesn’t reach me. Instead, she wraps her fingers around the man’s bicep and when he gives her a look that tells me he doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing, she pulls her hand out from behind her back and quickly thrusts something hard and black into the man’s neck. I realize, as his body starts violently convulsing, that the thing in her hand is a tazer, and after a few seconds of having electricity jolting through him, his grip on me slackens and I’m able to slide out of his hands.

“Run!” Leila screams.

I try to follow her command, but in my frenzied rush to get away, I trip over the still convulsing man in front of me and am only just able to pivot my body in time so that my shoulder and face take the entire brunt of the fall, rather than my stomach. I can feel the sharp pain of road rash on the side of my face as I try and scramble to my feet, and an even more intense pain in my elbow, but I’m able to quickly pick my stride back up to sprint down the alley after Leila. The sounds of Champs barks echo through the closely packed brick walls and just before we turn the corner that will take us into another back alley, I stop and turn to look at him.

“Champ,” I whimper.

“Are you kidding me?” Leila screams. “Forget about the dog and fucking run, Anastasia!” I swallow and then turn to follow her again, leaving Kate’s dog, the dog who probably just saved my life behind.

As we run through the wet alleyway, I start looking for an opening to the street, but Leila stops me halfway down the backstreet and yanks me behind a dumpster that is surrounded by piles of boxes and trash.

“Calm down,” she hisses. “You have to be quiet now, they’ll hear you.”

“We-we have to get back to Es-cala,” I stutter back at her.

“No.” She shakes her head. “You can’t go back there now. He knows that this was his chance to get you and now that we’ve blown his cover, he won’t be so careful in his next attempt. He’ll stop at nothing to get you. If you try to go back there now, people will die.”

“He can’t get me there. It’s safe there. There’s codes, and security…”

“It’s not safe there, Anastasia,” she interrupts me. “It’s not safe anywhere. He’s everywhere.”

“Wh-what?” I breathe out, the hysteria clear in my words.

“We have to get you somewhere safe, somewhere out of the city where he can’t get to you.”

“Bellevue,” I stutter. “Grace and Carrick.”

She lets out an angry huff. “What don’t you get? He’s done a lot of bad things, Ana, and there’s more he’s going to do, but more than GEH, more than Grey’s money, the thing he’s obsessed with getting, is you. He wants to destroy Grey and he knows that he has to take you from him to do that, so he’s going to try to get to you now by any means necessary. Today. That means you can’t go anywhere he would suspect you may go. You can’t go to the Grey’s, you can’t go to Elliot’s, you can’t go to Kavanagh’s, you can’t go to GEH, you can’t go to the airport…”

“The police then,” I suggest, but she shakes her head.

“No, you won’t make it there,” she says. “And I think he’s already bought a few of them…”

Bought? What do you mean… bought?

“People will do anything for money, Ana. No matter who they are. He has a lot of resources and he’s very motivated.”

“Who is he, Leila? Who’s doing this?”

She stares at me, silent and uncertain, and eventually shakes her head. “I can’t tell you that. He’ll kill me.”

“We’ll protect you. Christian will protect you,” I argue, but again, she shakes her head.

“You can’t even protect yourselves. This isn’t the end, Ana. This is just where it gets bad. Why do you think I’ve been sitting outside your house in Cambridge? To keep your security on high alert.”

“You were–you were protecting me?”

“Yes!”

I swallow and then feel my face crinkle as the fear spikes again and I start to cry, but as the first tears begin rolling down my cheeks, we hear loud, pounding footsteps coming up the alley.

Leila twists, sheltering my body with hers while we listen to the steps coming closer and closer. I don’t allow myself to move, or to cry… I don’t even breathe, because each thud against the pavement feels as though it could be counting down the last few seconds of my life.

“Leila!” a booming voice shouts, and the sound reverberates against the walls over us. Something heavy that must be made of metal slams hard into the dumpster, making the loud metallic bang echo so loudly it’s hard to stay silent with the sound pounding into my eardrums. But I do, I stay silent, even after the man screams for Leila again.

I feel her fingers grip tighter to the exposed skin on my arms, digging into the cuts and scrapes there, but she doesn’t respond. We stay there, crouched behind that dumpster, hidden only by waste and mess, trying to remain absolutely still and absolutely mute. The seconds drag on like hours, my heart beats so furiously it feels as though it may explode right out of my chest, but, eventually, the footsteps begin again, and then disappear.

“I need to find a way to get you out of here,” she says.

“Where?” I ask.

“Well, I’ll start with a car.” She pulls her own backpack off, but instead of removing cable ties, she takes out a black sweatshirt with a hood and hands it to me. I slip my arms inside of it, ignoring the screaming pain in my elbow, and pull the hood over my head, doing everything I can to hide as much of my face as possible. I try to get my legs to stop shaking long enough so that I can stand, but when I rest my hand against the wall to help me get to my feet, Leila places a hand on me to keep me down.

“Wait here,” she says.

“You’re not going to leave me here!” I exclaim.

“I can move easier without you. I’ll be fast. Just stay here, stay quiet, and stay out of sight.”

“Leila,” I hiss, but she ignores me as she throws her backpack back over her shoulder and slips into the alley. Once she’s gone, a whole new wave of panic crosses over me. If they find me now, without Leila as a witness, no one will know. How long will it take Christian to realize I’m actually gone and not just out? Or Ros… fuck, Ros! What will she do when she shows up and I’m not there? Maybe she’ll send Cardella and Anthony out for me. Maybe they’ll find me before Leila gets back…

And then people will die.

Was Leila serious when she said that? I have a brief flash of being under Anthony’s arm as he tries to take me through the front doors of Escala but is then thrown aside by my attacker from the alley, only this time his knife isn’t just a threat and I’m left to scream as a river of crimson flows over the white concrete. A shiver of terror washes over me and I reach down to feel my baby bump again. I can’t even bring myself to think of the specific threats that man made against me, made against my baby, but the fact that he made them makes me feel as though Leila wasn’t exaggerating. And then the vision of going back to Escala plays in my head again, only it’s not Anthony getting thrown aside, it’s Christian, and this time, I can hear his screams.

Tears threaten to choke me once more as I shake my head to try and dispel the horrifying image, but I force myself to hold them back. I can’t afford tears right now. I can’t make any sound. The lives of everyone I love, including my daughter, depend on it.

I grip tightly to the sweatshirt covering my bump, and then slide my hands underneath it so that I can feel my skin. She hasn’t moved since I was grabbed, and the longer I wait here, the more and more worrisome that becomes. I fell… hard. And now, she’s not moving. I need to get to a doctor… because she’s not moving.

Come on, Calliope…

I don’t know how long I sit there shaking behind that dumpster, terrified to move, terrified every second that Calliope doesn’t. My muscles are screaming with pain from being crouched down for so long and not allowing myself to shift my weight or even move my joints, but I don’t care. Every ounce of discipline I posses goes into remaining statue still behind that dumpster until I hear the roll of tires over asphalt coming up the alley. The car comes to a stop in front of the dumpster and I clamp my eyes down as tightly as possible as I say a silent prayer that it isn’t one of them.

“Ana?” Leila’s voice whispers and I heave a sigh of relief, then groan as I force myself to stand up. She comes around to grab ahold of me, continuing to look up and down the alleyway until she’s brought me to the driver’s side of the car.

“Okay,” she says. “Just get out of the city. Don’t use any credit cards, don’t make any phone calls…”

“I don’t… I don’t have anything.”

“Good, they won’t be able to track you then. Don’t get pulled over and don’t stop to contact Grey. They’ll be watching him now because they know he’ll lead them to you.”

“You’re not coming with me? I can’t do this on my own, I don’t know where to go…”

“I can’t go with you. They’re going to be looking for me too now and if I stay, I might be able to draw them away. Just find somewhere safe, somewhere they won’t think to follow you. Then and only then can you contact Grey.”

“I need to get to the hospital, Leila,” I tell her, and her eyes widen.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“She’s not moving. I fell down… she hasn’t moved…” Tears spring to my eyes again as she looks down at my baby bump.

“Fuck,” she hisses. “God damn it, get in the car.”

She takes me over to the passenger’s side and then reluctantly climbs into the driver’s seat. I try to crouch down low so that no one can see me through the windows, but it’s difficult because the pain of the assault I endured is really starting to hit me.

“I’m going to take you into the emergency room,” Leila says, as she pulls out of the alley and onto the crowded street. “There’s cameras there, hopefully that’ll scare them off. Grey already knows you’re gone, I just heard a news bulletin about your disappearance on the radio when I pulled into the alley, so they should contact him once you go in. Don’t stop for anyone who approaches you. Speak only to the people sitting behind the desk.”

“Okay,” I agree.

“Traffic is bad,” she says. “It’ll take awhile to get there.”

I sniff, nod, and bury my head into the canvas that covers the passenger’s seat, soaking it with a fresh wave of tears that sting the road rash on my face. Leila is silent as she drives, focusing on scanning the streets and the cars around us, but when we make it onto the I-5 north, which will take us to the hospital, she looks down at me again.

“When you get out… you should leave this city,” she says.

“And go where?”

“Home, back to Cambridge. He doesn’t have the resources there that he does here, especially now that I’ve defected, and Sawyer has been a real pain in our ass trying to get to you… I can’t tell you how many times this almost happened, but then Sawyer came out of nowhere at the last minute to stop us, without even knowing. He watches you very closely, better than anyone else. That’s why this had to happen in Seattle, when he wasn’t here. When he had more people… Go home, Ana, and stay close to Sawyer’s side.”

“I can’t just leave…”

“You don’t realize what you’re up against! You don’t know what he’s willing to do, how far he’s willing to go.”

“Then tell me.”

She swallows. “Do you remember that accident in November, the car that went through your house during that snowstorm? It wasn’t an accident.”

“What?”

“I had been watching you all week, waiting for you to go back to Seattle. They’d sent someone with my phone back to Connecticut in my car so Sawyer would think that I’d left Cambridge, but I hadn’t.  I was supposed to find a way to get your bag and I had a plan to have your flight delayed so I could get it out of the cargo hold while you were on the tarmac… Hyun, was going to dress like an airline employee to get to the plane, but then the storm hit and the plane never landed. You went home and we knew you had your bag with you. It was me and two other guys and we waited for hours to see what you were going to do until… he got impatient and told Huyn to drive the car through the wall. It worked. You left the house and you left your luggage behind, so while Hyun went with you to the neighbor’s house and then to the hospital, Billy and I broke into your house and found your laptop. He used it to build some kind of connection into the GEH server so that he could use a VPN and access the system from a remote location. We planted some emails about Welch, then we cleaned the whole house so you wouldn’t find any fingerprints if you called the cops, and then we left. They’ve been using that connection to try and break GEH apart from the inside ever since. First it was Welch, then it was Ros… next it’s going to be the security team.”

“Taylor,” I repeat, remembering what Ros had said, and Leila nods.

“So, that’s why my laptop was on my desk when I got back to Cambridge… I didn’t leave it out. You’d moved it.”

“Yes,” she says, and then shifts so she can reach into her back pocket. Next she holds out her closed fist to me and when I raise my hand to hers, she opens her fingers and the pair of white gold cufflinks that went missing from my bathroom fall into my palm.

“I’m so sorry, Anastasia,” she says, her voice breaking. “I didn’t realize what he was at first. I just wanted to break you and Grey up… but it got out of control. He’s out of control, he’s crazy and… I was scared. I’m so sorry.”

I pause and stare down at the cufflinks before I finally look back up at her, trying to blink away my tears. “I forgive you,” I tell her. “You saved my life today, I owe you everything…”

“You don’t owe me anything,” she says. “I deserve whatever happens next.”

It’s quiet until we pull up to the emergency room entrance at Northwest Hospital. Leila parks, but only long enough to help me get out of the car, and after I’ve hugged her goodbye and thanked her again for what she’s done, she slides back into the driver’s seat and disappears.

It’s strange walking into the waiting room because there are TVs on in almost every corner and all of them have my name splattered across them. As I wait behind a woman holding onto a child who looks as though he’s bleeding from his head, I glance up at the TV over the small waiting room and read the subtitles scrolling in front of the news reporter.

Miss Steele is believed to have disappeared from Mr. Grey’s downtown Seattle residence sometime between 10:30 AM and 12:00 PM this afternoon. Police say there were no signs of forced entry into Mr. Grey’s apartment, but foul play is suspected at this time. Miss Steele is 22 years old, five feet, five inches tall, approximately 135 lbs, has long, dark brown hair, blue eyes, and is currently six months pregnant. A representative for Grey Enterprises Holdings has released a statement from Mr. Grey offering a $1 million dollar reward to anyone who can provide any information to Seattle police that will lead to the immediate, safe return of Miss Steele.

“Excuse me,” a woman’s voice says, and I turn to see the woman behind the desk looking expectantly at me. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” I croak. “My name is Anastasia Steele. I’ve been attacked. Someone tried to kidnap me.”

Her eyes widen. “Anastasia Steele?”

“Yes. Please, I think… I think something may have happened to my baby.”

There’s a lot of commotion as I’m immediately whisked back into the emergency room, not only by a nurse in lilac colored scrubs, but by hospital security and two police officers that were on site. While the nurse takes my vitals, takes pictures of my wounds, has me remove all of my clothes to put in a plastic bag, and cleans the blood from my skin, the police ask me several questions to verify who I am, and when they’re finished they leave to make the call to Christian while I’m led back to a private room that has a security guard standing at the door.

While I wait for the OB consult to come down and examine me, I work very hard not to think about my fears for the examination I’m about to undergo, but it just means that my mind starts obsessing over Christian. I keep picturing him sitting in the great room of our apartment, having absolutely no idea what may have happened to me, or if I’m okay, or if the baby is okay, and having no way of contacting me. He must be going out of his mind, but the worst part is that when he gets the call from the police and they tell him they’ve found me, all of his worst fears are going to be confirmed. Well, maybe not his worst. I am still alive. That’s something.

I’m still alive.

“Miss Steele?” a voice calls, accompanying a slight knock on the door.

“Yes, come in,” I reply.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Berg, I run the ER here. Your OB Consult is going to be Dr. Robinson, she’ll be down momentarily, but I just wanted to check in with you and let you know what’s going on. Mr. Grey has been contacted and he is on his way here. Once we have confirmed you and your baby are stable, the police are going to come in and ask you some questions.”

“Okay,” I nod.

“I need to ask you, would you, for any reason, feel uncomfortable or unsafe if we were to allow Mr. Grey to come back here and be with you?”

His question takes me off guard and it almost takes me a minute to process it. “Wait, you don’t think that Christian…”

“I’m not here to make any assumptions, Miss Steele,” he says. “I’m only here to ensure your safety. If you don’t want him to see you, we can ensure that he doesn’t.”

“No, Christian didn’t hurt me. I was grabbed…” my voice falters as once again tears prick my eyes. “I was grabbed off the streets. It was a stranger, someone who wanted to hurt me… Christian would never hurt me.”

“Okay,” Dr. Berg says. “Okay, then we will allow Mr. Grey back to see you, if that’s what you wish. Until the police have cleared you, only he and your next of kin will have access to this room.”

I nod and he gets up just as another door opens and a woman in salmon, pushing the heavy ultrasound machine I’m so used to, comes inside.

“Take good care of her, Dr. Robinson,” Dr. Berg says. “Poor thing has had a rough day.”

“Of course,” she says, turning to smile at me. “Miss Steele, I’m Dr. Robinson. I’m going to take a look at your baby, okay?”

“Okay,” I reply, nodding furiously. “I fell down. I was running and I fell… I didn’t fall on her but, but she hasn’t moved since I fell.”

“Okay, then let’s take a look.”

I flinch as she lifts my shirt and squirts a blob of blue goo onto my belly, then lowers the wand onto my skin and shifts it back and forth. I wait for the most agonizing few seconds of my life before I finally hear the steady thrumming sound of her heart.

“There she is,” Dr. Robinson says. I turn to face the monitor and see her. She’s still but she looks perfect. The doctor looks around my entire belly, searching for any lesions or abruptions, but she doesn’t find anything. For all accounts, Calliope is perfectly fine.

“Oh, thank god,” I say, breaking down into tears once the doctor gives me the all clear. She smiles down at me, trying to be reassuring as she looks through my chart to continue with my examination.

“I do want to talk to you though about some of the other things I see here,” she says. “Your blood pressure is high, but I hear you’ve just been through quite the ordeal. How’s your vision?”

“Umm…” I hesitate, and then feel my muscles tighten as my regular OBs warnings run through my mind in congruence with some of the things I’ve had happen today.

“It’s fine now,” I tell her, “But… it was blurry. I can’t remember, I hit my head. I don’t know if that’s why or if it… Owe!” I reach up to touch my head where it had hit the wall, and find that it’s tender, extremely tender, and that my hair is matted with blood.

“It’s okay, Ana,” the doctor says. “Don’t overexert yourself now. We’ll have someone come take a look at all of your injuries and I’ll run some tests, just confirm that everything is going exactly the way it’s supposed to.”

“Okay,” I nod, and as she begins tapping at the tablet in her hand to order her tests, I hear another commotion just outside the door.

“Grey,” Christian’s rough voice says from on the other side of the door. “Christian Grey. This is my f-fiancé’s room.”

There’s a beat and then a very pale looking Christian steps inside. The moment he lays eyes on me, his face crinkles with pain.

“Baby,” he whispers. “Oh my god.”

I break down again as he flies across the room and takes me into his arms, but the movement makes me cry out in pain and his entire body seizes.

“What’s wrong?”

“My elbow,” I whimper.

“Has anyone looked at that?” Dr. Robinson asks. “It’s not in your chart… “ I shake my head and she frowns. “I’ll send someone in right away. Try and stay upright until we’ve made sure that head injury is superficial.”

I nod when she smiles and then moves around the bed, quietly stepping out of the room to give Christian and I privacy.

“Your face,” he whispers. “What happened to your face?”

“I fell,” I tell him. “I was trying to run and I fell.”

“The-the baby?”

“She’s fine,” I assure him. “We’re okay.”

“What happened?” he asks. “Ros called my office and said… she said you were gone. That you’d told her to come over but that you weren’t there when she arrived. The security team couldn’t find you… They found the dog and he was bloody.”

“Champ? You found Champ?”

“Taylor did. He was limping up the street toward the apartment and Gail took him to the vet. He’s been stabbed. We thought you… I thought you’d…”

My face crinkles again and tears pour out of me. “Champ saved my life,” I cry. “He was going to kill me, Christian. He was going to kill me and then Champ… He saved me.”

“Ana,” Christian whispers, pulling me into him again, more carefully this time and holding me against his chest so that I can cry into his shirt. “What happened to you?”

I can’t answer. I’m not ready to answer. The only thing I can do is shake and cry, and, until the doctor comes back, Christian lets me do just that. He holds me and rocks me back and forth while I unravel into a torrent of tears and pain.

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