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update2b

Happy Sunday!

I’ve been on vacation this week and didn’t quite get enough writing time in to finish this week’s update in time to have it up by Monday. I will not be taking a whole week though. I’m shooting to have this update posted on Wednesday and will continue on the following Monday.

I’m truly sorry that I’m late this week, but I hope this lighter chapter will be worth the wait.

Also, if you haven’t subscribed for email updates, now would be a great time to do so!!

And yes, even at Disneyland, I was still wishingmrgreywashere

xoxo

Tara

 

Chapter 09

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Carter blinks, seemingly confused by my question, which is weird because the last time we had regular contact with each other, he was lamenting over the fact that he’d been waitlisted for Harvard Law and how doubtful it seemed that his status would change before the start of term. But here he is, books in hand and the tell-tale signs of exhaustion darkening the skin beneath his eyes.

“What do you mean, ‘what am I doing here’?” he asks. “I go to school here. What are you doing here?”

“Oh, we uh… we’re here with Mia. She got in for next year and it’s orientation weekend.”

“Grey’s sister? Didn’t she want to be a singer or… actress or something?”

“Ballet dancer. But she decided she wants to study law instead, so here we are. And you… I didn’t know that you got off the wait list. That’s amazing! Come here.” I hold out my arms to hug him, and while he does step into my embrace, I note that he’s being overly cautious. Maybe that’s because he has some unresolved feelings over his break up with Kate that are now too much to ignore in the absence of a mad man threatening my life. Or maybe, it’s because I haven’t called him since he was released from the hospital in Georgia. A hospital he was only in because of a great personal sacrifice he made to protect me and my family.

“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I say, pulling away from him. But he shakes his head dismissively.

“Don’t be. I get it.” He pauses, and the air between us is suddenly ladened with the unspoken events of the past. His hand twitches, almost as though he wants to reach out for me, but thinks better of it almost immediately. “When I heard about what happened to you… I called Kate to try and see how you were doing. She said it was pretty bad.”

“It was, at first. But some time has passed and… We’re moving on. We’re good. Fine.” I force a smile, and he nods.

“Good. I’m really glad to hear that. Do you wanna… get a coffee or something? Catch up?”

“Yeah, I do, but… I’ve gotta get back to my sister before she thinks I abandoned her. Do you want to come over tonight for dinner or something?”

“Come over? You still have your house here?”

“Yeah. We knew we’d back fairly often and the property value is good, so Christian just decided to keep it. It’s pretty empty and boring though, so you’d actually be doing me a huge favor by coming over and keeping me company. I don’t know that I can handle losing another game of Monopoly to anyone named Grey.”

“Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.” He laughs, and while I can hear the good humor in his voice, his words make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. My smile falters and, instinctively, Luke steps closer to me. I try to subtly bat him away and laugh.

“So, I’ll see you tonight? I can order in from that sub place you like. What is it called? Al’s?”

“That’s the place. You bring the food, I’ll bring the beer.”

“Best idea I’ve heard all day. Seven o’clock?”

“I’ll be there.”

“Good.” I lean in and give him one last hug before he straightens the books in his arms and continues on up the walkway, towards the parking lot behind the main law building.

“I saw that,” Luke says once we’re alone, and I swallow the growing lump in my throat

“I know.”

“So, what? He’s next on the list now?”

I gnaw on my bottom lip, staring for a long minute in the direction Carter disappeared, contemplating. I haven’t had any questions about anyone Luke and I have dealt with so far. It’s all come so naturally that it’s almost felt like acting on instinct. But as I stand there, repeating Carter’s words in my head over and over again, analyzing them, I feel torn for the very first time.

‘Yeah, losing out to a Grey sucks.’

Is that threatening? Does that mean he’s holding a grudge? Does he blame Elliot or Christian for losing Kate and me and he’s angrier about it than he let on when he came to Seattle after our wedding? I noticed he was awkward when I tried to hug him earlier, maybe I was right. Maybe, now that I’m not being stalked by a man actively trying to kidnap me anymore, he doesn’t have to push his hurt feelings aside for the greater good and can instead let them fester in the resentment that is undoubtedly made worse by the fact that I never even called to check on him after we left Atlanta…

Or maybe, it was just a joke.

“Ana?”

“I don’t know,” I admit. “But he’s coming over tonight. So we’ll see.”

Luke sighs and reaches out to rub my shoulders. “For what it’s worth… I wouldn’t have called Kate to check on you if I was holding any resentment strong enough to make me want to hurt you or your family.”

“And I probably wouldn’t give someone I wanted dead a liver either, but Gia offered.” I turn to look at Luke and swallow. “And Kommer used to drive all way into Boston at two o’clock in the morning to buy the fruit snacks that I liked because the store in Cambridge was closed and I was having a craving. People lie, Luke. Everyone lies. The bad ones and the good ones. Christian lies. And now, so do we.”

“You’re doing it to protect your family. And Christian… he does shady shit sometimes but you know that he means well.”

“We all do. For someone.” Luke’s mouth drops open like he’s going to argue, but suddenly can’t find the words, so I brush him off and take the handle of Calliope’s stroller out of his hands. “Come on, Mia is going to wonder where we are.”

Mia doesn’t answer her phone when I call from the car, trying to figure out where she’s at, so we decide to start at the Old Yard and work out from there. Thankfully, the sheer number of dorms there are to showcase for the incoming freshman means we arrive right at the end of the tour, just as Mia’s group is exiting Grays Hall. I wave at her as she descends the stairs at the middle entrance and try to gauge her excitement, but she’s playing it very cool. I suspect she wants to appear mature and reserved in front of her future classmates, but, just like her brother, it takes me only seconds to find the excited twinkle in her eyes.

“Well?” I ask, handing her a water bottle from the pocket beneath Calliope’s stroller. “How was it?”

“Grays is definitely the best. I can see why you and Christian picked it. It seems less crowded, and it’s definitely the most updated… but if you get a room on the wrong side of the hall, you won’t get that perfect view of the yard. Christian didn’t have a view, right? But maybe that was because he was by himself. I’ll definitely need a roommate… I wonder if that’s something you can request?”

She continues on and on about her future plans for living in Grays Hall as we follow the group away from the dormitories, and listening to her is exactly like listening to Kate five years ago. I can feel the same excited energy radiating off of her that I felt then and, for just one minute, I’m a little jealous of her. Harvard was the greatest, most transformative experience I ever had, except maybe motherhood, and despite how glad I was to finally have the endless nights of studying and brutal weeks of tests and papers behind me when it was all over, I now kind of wish I had just one more year. Except I wouldn’t go through those long months without Christian again for anything in the world. Not even Harvard.

There’s a break in the day’s activities for lunch, which we’ll be having at Annenberg Dining Hall to give the students and parents both a sample of campus cuisine. It’s weird how, years later, they’re still serving the exact same food, right down to the decorations on the little pudding cups at the dessert station. Mia doesn’t know well enough to stay away from the main dishes at the entree station, which are served in mass, but rather than warn her away, I decide its best she learn through trail by fire, just like we all had to. And it’s a little satisfying to watch her wrinkle her nose over her lemon chicken pasta, while I enjoy the salad I made myself at the salad bar.

“I’m going to starve!” she complains, and I giggle but shake my head.

“It’s not all bad. You’ll learn quick what’s good and what to avoid. If it’s hot and comes out of a big metal dish, you don’t want it. But breakfast is good, and so is the soup. And if you go to the deli and get the thin sliced bread, instead of the thick stuff they have behind the grill, you can get a decent grilled cheese sandwich.”

She grimaces and pushes her pasta around with her fork. “I can’t believe Christian actually used to eat here. He’s pickier than I am.”

“He didn’t come because of the food,” I tell her and when she looks up, I wink. “He came for me.”

Luke shakes his head and lets his silverware clink down on top of his plate. “I need you to repeat what you just said to yourself and think very carefully about the way you phrased that.”

I laugh, but Mia tears the corner off the crusty bread on the side of her plate and tosses it at him. “You have a dirty mind.”

“Oh, my sweet summer child…”

“Game of Thrones?” I interject. “And you say I’m the nerd!”

“Game of Thrones is quite possibly the best television show ever created, it’s not nerdy.”

“Meh. The books were better.”

“And that’s why you’re the nerd” I push him, hard enough that he’s knocked slightly off balance and has to catch his weight on the bench, but when he sits up we both devolve into laughter until a beet red Mia threatens to leave and never speak to either of us again. Luke seems fine with that, but I quickly pull it together and hiss for him to knock it off.

“Alright, everyone!” our tour guide says brightly, getting up from her seat at the table where she has been getting grilled by parents for the better part of the last hour. “It’s time we go meet with your academic advisors and get signed up for classes! Who’s excited?”

She gets several responses with varying degrees of enthusiasm as everyone clears their lunch trays and gathers together again. But when Mia gets up from the table, she turns and knocks fairly hard into Calliope’s stroller, jolting her, and causing her to wake. Immediately, she screams. I try to calm her by pulling her from the stroller and holding her close to me, bouncing her, rocking her back and forth, even offering her the pacifier Christian has been adamant she can only have at night. Nothing works. Her gurgly screams echo through the cavernous hall, disturbing the students and drowning out whatever our guide is trying to say. I get several dirty looks from other parents, even a few from the people in Mia’s group, so as we make our way outside, I reach out for Mia’s hand and pull her back so we can talk privately.

“I think we’re going to go.”

“What? No! You can’t go. This is the part that actually matters.”

“I know. But you’re going to have an advisor, Mia. They can help you better that I ever could. Trust me, you’re in good hands.”

“I don’t want to do this by myself.”

Calliope starts digging her fingers into the side of my face, wailing and demanding my attention. “I’m sorry, Mia.”

Her face falls, but she nods. “Alright. I’ll call you when we’re done?”

“Yeah, and text me to let me know how everything goes.” She smiles in agreement and tries to kiss Calliope, but my very red faced baby dodges her and buries her face into my shoulder where she continues to sob and drench my t-shirt in her tears. I give Mia an awkward side hug while Luke wishes her good luck, and then we hurry away back towards the parking lot where we’ve left the car.

It takes some borderline professional level wrestling moves to get Callie back into her car seat and a two ibuprofen I wash down with warm water to get us back to the house. Once we’re inside, I immediately lay her blanket down over the floor so I can change her, but she continues to fight me the entire time.

“Come on, Calli-lilly,” I practically beg as I try to pull a t-shirt down over her head. “Work with me here.”

“No!” she screams. “No! No! No!”

“What do you mean, no? You can’t be a nakie baby!”

“No!” I see the small movement of her mouth that tells me she’s about to start crying again, so I give up. I wad up the shirt and little stretch pants I planned to dress her in and shove them unceremoniously back in her diaper bag. And she revels in her victory. The little monster even has the audacity to giggle at me.

“Oh you think it’s funny?” I ask, tickling her sides. She smiles and cringes away from me, giggling more as I brush the tips of my fingers over her skin. Luke shakes his head.

“Sometimes I think that she’s Grey’s kid, through and through. But then she does something to remind me that she is, in fact, 50% you.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s stubborn and impossible, but then one little smile and all is forgiven.”

“Awh!” I pout my lips at him, but he quickly rolls his eyes before looking back down at Callie and grinning.

“Hey, I got bad news for you, kid. I’m a monster. And I’m gonna get you!” She shrieks as he launches himself from the rocking chair and crawls away from him, and I lie down on the hardwood floor to watch, grateful for a little break. She loves being chased around, and Luke happily gives her what she wants for the better part of an hour. When he’s finally exhausted, Calliope is back to my playful, happy little baby, and she stays that way for the rest of the evening. She doesn’t put up a fight when I feed her or give her a bath later, and as seven o’clock rolls around, she sits quietly in my lap, listening to the story I read to her, until the doorbell rings. Luke gets up to answer it, but she turns wide eyes to me.

“Dada?”

“No, baby. Daddy’s at work.”

“No dada.” The disappointment is clear on her face as she snuggles into me, but Luke opens the door to let in Carter, so I simply cuddle her, rather than try to console her.

“Hey,” he greets us with a broad grin, holding up two six packs of ‘Gansett. “Am I too early?”

“Not at all.” I smile back, then look down at Calliope. “You ready for bed, munchkin?” She doesn’t reply, choosing instead to further bury her face into my t-shirt. So I tighten my hold on her and get out of the rocking chair. The closer I get to Carter, the more she tries to retreat into me.

“Can you say hi?” I ask in an encouraging voice. “Hi, Carter. Hi.”

She mumbles something into my shirt, which I think is mama, so simply hug her and give Carter an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, she’s not usually this shy.”

“That’s okay, we just met. Her name was… um…”

“Calliope.”

“Right.” He smiles and then leans in close to her, trying to get her to look at him. “Hey, Calliope. My name is Carter. I’m a friend of your mom’s.”

Again, she doesn’t respond. I try to shift her so she can’t hide her face against me, but as she moves, she shrieks and throws her body into me, nearly causing me to drop her.

“And that is when I can tell she’s Grey’s kid,” Luke interrupts with a laugh. “She hates Reed.”

Thankfully, Carter laughs too, before breaking off one of the white and red cans in his hand and tossing it Luke. They begin to talk casually with one another, catching up, so I ask Luke to order dinner and then take the opportunity to disappear back upstairs where I can put Calliope down for the night. She’s not keen to let me leave her alone in the room, but after softly singing her a few of her favorite lullabies, she drifts off enough that I can sneak out into the hallway without her making a fuss. By the time I get downstairs, the food has arrived and most of the first six pack Carter brought is gone.

“You have to go pick up Mia,” I warn Luke, narrowing my eyes at the can of beer in his hand.

“It’s not me,” he replies, and I follow my eyes to the two empties sitting on the floor by Carter.

“Hey, I’m just getting a head start,” he says. “Catch up to me, Steele.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything but a glass of wine with dinner. I think it’s safe to say I’ve lost all of my tolerance for alcohol.” I pop the tab on top of the beer can and take my first sip, surprised by how familiar it tastes despite the fact that I haven’t had a cold ‘Gansett since probably my junior year.

“Mmm,” I hum. “Memories.”

“Or the lack of,” Carter laughs. He lifts his can and after tapping the tip of mine against his, we both laugh and drink again.

It doesn’t take long for me to catch him up on everything that’s happened in my life since we last saw each other. I purposefully avoid the topic of Andrew Lincoln, but since that’s really what my entire life has been about over the last six months, I mostly have to talk about Christian and Calliope. There’s a weird moment where he tells me that the last he heard, Calliope had died when I was in labor and he only found out that wasn’t true when he came to warn me about the phone call he’d gotten from Lincoln on what turned out to be my wedding night.

“I really feel like I haven’t thanked you enough for what you did,” I tell him, but he brushes me off.

“Don’t worry about it. Seriously, I know you would have done the same for me.”

I nod. “I would. I was worried that after you and Kate broke up that you’d just kind of fade out of our lives. I’m glad we can still be friends.”

“Me too. How is Kate, anyway? I haven’t heard from her since… you know. After it happened.”

“Oh. Well, she and Elliot supposedly got married.”

“Supposedly?”

I roll my eyes. “They eloped. Went to Vegas, didn’t invite me. Her driver’s license may say ‘Grey’ now, but I refuse to acknowledge the validity of their marriage until I get a damn bridesmaid’s dress.”

“She’s being serious,” Luke says. “Grey has even suggested they do a vow renewal just so Ana will stop complaining about it.”

I turn to glare at him. “You can’t have a vow renewal if you’ve never been married, Lucas.”

He shakes his head. “You see what I mean. I’m just waiting for the day when Ana tries to make a joke about how their baby is a bastard and Kate whacks her upside the head.”

“I would never say something like that!” I say indignantly, but he seems less intimidated and more like he’s trying desperately to stop himself from smiling.

“Why? Because… Calliope is… well… you know.” I reach over to find something to throw at him, and, rather than help me, Carter just looks over at me, confused.

“Kate had a baby?”

“Oh, not yet,” I tell him. “But soon. She’s due April 14th.”

“Wow. So… he really did give her every thing she wanted.” The atmosphere of the room shifts as his words echo through the room and an uncomfortable quiet falls over us. I notice Luke glance over at me out of the corner of my eye, but before I can say anything, we’re interrupted by the shrill ring of my cellphone from the other room.

“I’m sorry, that might be Christian. Hold on.” After untangling my legs and getting up off the floor, I prepare myself to tell Christian I can’t continue our fight from earlier this afternoon because I’m too busy entertaining Carter Reed, which would probably result in him magically showing up here in a seemingly impossible amount of time, but when I get to my phone, it’s not his number I see. It’s Mia’s. And while part of me is relieved, a bigger part is a little upset that Christian hasn’t called me back to talk through our fight this afternoon. It’s not like him to leave things awkward and unresolved between us.

Mia’s ready for Luke to come pick her up, so he ducks out, promising to be right back, while I settle back down on the floor across from Carter. He’s still a little off about the whole Kate revelation thing, so I nervously drag my finger over the lip of my beer can and look up at him.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “About… you know, everything that happened. I know that it was hard for you with Christian and I, and now Kate and Elliot…”

“I’m fine, Ana.”

“You’re sure? No hard feelings?”

He shakes his head. “No. Maybe at first, but not anymore. I think that I’ve had enough time to think about it to realize that… if Kate had accepted my proposal and we’d gotten married, neither one of us would have been happy. I mean, she wouldn’t stay here. You were moving away and she had that job offer from her dad. She was always going to have to go back to Seattle and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be here. And as much as they drive me crazy, I don’t think I’d want to settle down and start a family so far from my parents. She’d never agree to leave hers. That fight would have never ended and eventually, we’d grow to resent each other and blame each other for everything we missed out on in life. I would have been her biggest mistake, and she would have been mine. In a way, the time we spent together was perfect. Exactly what is was meant to be. Now, I can think back on what we had together and be happy about what we shared instead of letting all those great memories be ruined and tainted because we didn’t let go when we should have.”

I smile and let myself relax into the wall at my back. “Yeah. God, you’re so different.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the Carter Reed I knew was always more concerned about his beer pong record than doing serious introspection on his life. You never made plans past what you were doing that weekend, let alone consider what was going to make you happy long term.”

He laughs. “Yeah, well maybe law school does that to you. Or maybe it was getting waitlisted. I’d never been told no before and, honestly, if your husband hadn’t stepped in, I wouldn’t be here right now. That hit a little close to home.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s just say I wasn’t next on the waitlist. My dad nearly disowned me.”

“No, about Christian… What do you mean he stepped in?”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “He got me in. When I came to talk to him about that phone call last summer, he told me that if I was really there to help him, he wanted to help me. He offered me a job first, but when I turned it down, he said he’d get me into Harvard Law. I thought after what happened to your mom that he’d take it back but he didn’t. He made all the calls and worked whatever magic he had to work and now, here I am.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, I might have been wrong about him. He’s a good guy, your husband. And if I had to lose you to anyone, I’m glad it’s someone like him.”

“Someone like him?”

“Well, I’m never actually going to say I’m glad he stole my girlfriend in college. I’m forgiving, but I’m not a saint.” I laugh, and he reaches over to get us both another beer. From then on, it’s easy to talk to him. I can see just how much he’s grown up this year and I have to say that I’m impressed. He tells me about school and how he thinks he’s going to pull away from the corporate law path his dad wants him on and look into environmental law. Something about a case he read in class involving loggers and indigenous animals really struck a chord with him, and I can hear his passion when he tells me about all the things he can do to help the cause once he graduates. He’s even nearly quit drinking. He’s put all of his energy into being the top of his class, just like Kate. It’s a change, hearing him so dedicated to something that didn’t involve a keg or a bunch of girls bikini tops. He has a whole new lease on life and hearing the ease with which he credits Christian not only calms my nerves, but it makes me really excited for him. Carter is a good guy and I feel in the deepest parts of my soul that we’ll have nothing to worry about from him. Only years of meaningful friendship.

Luke and Mia return about thirty minutes later, but while Mia heads straight upstairs to call her parents, Luke stays behind to hang out a little while longer. Except, a little while kind of turns into a long while. Carter leaves at around eleven and only then because Luke reminds me we have an early morning flight to catch. I hug him goodbye at the door, tell him to stay in touch, and then make him promise he’ll look after my little sister next year. He agrees with a laugh, and then shakes Luke’s hand before he finally turns to go. Then we lock up the house, say goodnight, and head off to our separate rooms.

I’ve been waiting for Christian’s call for the last few hours, but it hasn’t come. Even if we are fighting, I expected him to call when he woke up this morning. I have Calliope with me after all. The fact that he didn’t makes me uneasy, so I decide to bite the bullet and be the first to break our silent cold war. But he doesn’t pick up. The phone rings twice and goes to voicemail.

He’s in meetings, Ana. And he’s with Taylor. He’s fine.

Calliope is sleeping peacefully in her pack n’ play and her small, delicate features look angelic in the muted light. It’s too much to resist. I quickly take a picture, but I don’t send it to our whole family like I normally would. I just send it to Christian, hoping to bait him into a response, even if it’s just a text. Minutes pass though and nothing. I think briefly of slipping into the bathroom and snapping a nude in the mirror, knowing that wouldn’t go unanswered, but that’s not productive either. I’m still mad about what happened and I don’t want him to think he’s just off the hook. Maybe I don’t need to scream at him like I really wanted to this afternoon, maybe I don’t need to call him all the hateful names I now regret even thinking earlier… but I do want to discuss how he hurt me, hear him validate those feelings, and to apologize. If we don’t talk about it, I’ll never know that it won’t happen again. And if I don’t trust him not to interfere with my career, every single victory or defeat I experience from this moment forward is always going to leave me with questions.

So I take my phone into bed with me, convinced he’ll call me once he’s finished with whatever he’s doing. Every few seconds, I tap the screen of my phone to check for missed calls for text messages, but there’s nothing. I fall asleep with nothing.

***

It’s chaos getting ready and out the door in time for our flight the next morning. Somehow, Mia has lost a shoe and she tears through everything trying to find it. She’s made it very clear that she has no intention of leaving this house until it’s packed safely in her bag, so Luke helps her look. Meanwhile, I sit on the floor downstairs with Calliope in my lap, trying to feed her a jar of mashed pears, which she refuses over and over again.

“Dada,” she whines.

“I know, baby. I miss him too. But we’re going to see him tonight, I promise. Just eat for me, please.”

“No, dada! Dada!”

Sighing in defeat, I reach for my phone on the other side of the blanket and try to call Christian again, this time on FaceTime so Calliope can associate his voice with his face. But once again, he doesn’t pick up and the understanding side of me that tried to excuse his rejection yesterday dissipates under the weight of my anguished cries. He has no right to be upset with me. This fight is his fault, and he shouldn’t be ignoring me. Especially when I have his daughter.

“Found it,” Luke says, coming down the stairs. “It was already in her bag, can you believe that?

“You don’t say,” I reply sourly, and he frowns.

“You ready?”

“Yeah. Callie won’t eat so we’ll have to try once we get to the airport.”

“A hungry, cranky baby on a plane? What could possibly go wrong?”

I glare at him, then gather everything I can reach and start stuffing Calliope’s diaper bag so we can go. It’s unorganized and anything I need will undoubtedly be impossible to find, but that’s a problem for future Ana to deal with.

We barely get out the door on time and Luke has to race down the freeway so we’re not late. Thankfully, it’s Sunday, so traffic is fairly light, but the airport itself is packed. There’s a line to return our rental car, there’s a line to wait for the shuttle to the terminal, and there is a line in front of every ticket kiosk at the Delta counter. I fidget uncomfortably with Calliope in my arms, while she points at any man in a suit who passes us, asking for Christian, until I finally am able to insert my credit card in the machine to print out my ticket. And after all of that, a message pops up that tells me I need to speak with a Delta employee.

“You have got to be kidding me!” I exclaim in frustration, and when Mia gets the same message that I did, she shrugs and reaches out to place a comforting hand on my arm.

“Hey, maybe Christian called and got us upgraded.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

We gather all of our luggage together and tell Mia to wait with Calliope while Luke and I go to the counter to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s not an upgrade at all. Our flight home was overbooked and we’ve been bumped to a different flight later in the afternoon. I argue. I ask to speak to a supervisor, and then that person’s supervisor. I even drop Christian’s name and threaten to get the company’s CEO involved, but all to no avail. By the time I speak to anyone who has the authority to help us, the doors have been closed and the plane has left the gate.

“So what do we do?” Luke asks.

“Nothing,” Mia grumbles. “We already gave up our car, its not like we can go anywhere.”

“Let’s just go wait at the gate. There’s food inside and if Calliope will eat, maybe I can do a few laps around the airport with her in the stroller and get her to fall asleep before we finally get on a plane. If we ever get on a plane.”

“Alright,” Luke says. “Lets go.”

Once we get past security, we find our gate and then search out something to eat for breakfast. Unfortunately, the only place in our terminal is a sports bar type restaurant that only serves greasy food and plays Red Sox baseball on the TV. Luke’s game though, and Mia makes it clear that she will very happily go ham on some fries, so I wait for the waitress to take our order and then duck into the Hudson News directly across from us to buy a banana for Calliope. It’s actually the first thing this morning that seems to work out. Luke is content to watch sports and drink Bloody Mary’s, Mia snaps a picture of her food to post on PixC and then calls Tibby to recount every second of her weekend, and hunger has finally won out enough for Calliope to actually want to eat the banana I offer her. Only, she doesn’t want to just take a bite off the end. She wants to hold it. But when I break off the tip and hand it to her, she squishes it in her hand and wipes it all over herself. Then she looks down at the mess and starts to cry again.

“Well, you see, that’s what happens!” I say irritably, picking up a cloth napkin from the table and wiping her down as best I can. Mia fishes out an new shirt we can change her into from the diaper bag, but as I get up to take her to the bathroom, Luke’s phone rings and it diverts my attention.

“Taylor?” I ask. He shakes his head and holds up a finger. Mia gets up and offers to change Calliope, and though I let her, I quickly regret that decision when I realize the phone call Luke takes has nothing to do with Christian.

“Hey, baby,” he says. “We got bumped from our flight, so we’ll be a few hours late. You should just wait for me at home. I’ll make Ana drive me back when we land. Oh, it was fine. How about you? What did you do this weekend?”

I slump back into my chair and feel an unpleasant mixture of irritation and jealousy as I listen to Luke’s phone call. Jade is seemingly very interested in Luke’s trip and wants to talk to him so badly, she won’t let him end the call. I can’t even get Christian to answer the phone.

“Everything alright?” Mia asks, as she sets a now clean Calliope back into the high chair pushed up to the table.

“Yeah, fine.”

“You sure? You seem a little… off today.”

I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

“Do you think that if you tell people that enough, you might start to believe it too?” Her poignant remark, which echoes so many of the thoughts I’ve had over the past few months, strikes a cord. But when I turn to argue with her, she simply raises a challenging eyebrow and I feel the fight drain out of me.

“Christian and I are fighting,” I reply.

“You two are always fighting.”

“No we aren’t!”

“Oh, yeah. You’re right. You being so stubborn and him being so controlling never leads to any arguments in the Grey household. How could I possibly think there could ever be something wrong between the two of you?”

Despite myself, I laugh. “We still don’t fight all the time.”

“Okay, well, what are you fighting about this time?”

“Me being stubborn and him being controlling.”

“You don’t say!” She smiles broadly and then picks up a fry, dips it in ketchup, and hands it to me. “You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” I reply while I chew. “Not in front of Calliope.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s probably not as serious as you think it is. It’s hard to tell what someone is actually feeling over the phone, maybe you two just need to talk in person.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

“If it helps, he didn’t even seem irritated when I talked to him this morning. So, he can’t be that mad.”

I drop the fry I was reaching over to get and gape back at her. “You talked to him?”

“Yeah, he called me this morning to find out how registration went. I think he said that whatever he and Ros are doing over there was going well, so he’ll probably be in a good mood when he gets home. Might make things easier.”

“Oh, no.” I grit my teeth together and ball up a napkin in my hand. “Easy is not what this is going to be.”

“What do you…?” Her words cut off as a disembodied voice comes over the loud speaker and announces that our flight has begun boarding. Quickly, I pay the bill and then hurry with Luke and Mia to get to our gate. On the plane, Mia takes the same seat across the aisle from Luke, Callie, and I, so our conversation is effectively over. Luke looks at me curiously, as if he too senses that I need to talk, but I don’t. Not to him. Not to Mia. The person that I need to talk to has chosen to be silent and I won’t get the chance to make him talk to me until late tonight.

***

It’s dinner time when we land in Seattle, and Woods is waiting for us at the airport. Our first stop is to drop Luke off at his apartment with Jade, and then to drop Mia off at the apartment downtown that Carrick and Grace now live in full time. They ask me to stay and have dinner with them, even offer to call Kate and Elliot over, but I’m fried and just want to get Calliope to bed, read a book, and drink a large glass of wine.

“Well, why don’t you leave her here with us?” Grace suggests. “You and Christian have been apart all weekend, I’m sure you’d like a night off from parenting to… get reacquainted.”

It’s not a bad idea. It very possible that Christian and I could wake up the entire house screaming at each other tonight and I don’t want Calliope around that. But still…

“Thank you, Grace. But he’s going to want to see her when he gets home.”

She sighs. “Of course he will. Well, we’ll see you all next weekend at the baby shower.”

“Yes, you will.” I smile and accept her warm hug, then wave good-bye to Mia and Carrick before heading back to the car.

At home, all the stress of the day melts away. Gail has dinner ready, even though it’s still her night off, and despite my protests she pours the large glass of wine I’ve been dying for since early this morning. Calliope is excited to get back to all of her toys and I watch her play with them and crawl around the living room until she’s too tired to continue. Then I give her a bath, read her favorite story, and put her to bed. Before I even lay her down in her crib, she’s out for the count.

But once Calliope is asleep for the night, the wait begins. Christian’s flight from Taiwan is much longer than our flight from Boston, and I have no idea when he’s actually going to get here because he didn’t call me when he took off. I probably wouldn’t have waited up for him, but I don’t want to be mad at him anymore. I just want to talk this out and get back to the perfect place that only exists when he and I are in sync with one another. So I wait. I pour a second glass of wine and curl up in front of the fireplace, reading the book I took to Boston with me until I’m fighting my eyelids.

It’s the alarm on the door that tells me he’s arrived. The electronic beep sounds through the empty entryway, and after I listen to him punch the code into the keypad, I hear him dismiss Taylor for the night. He sounds tired, which will either work for me, or against me.

“Christian!” I call, and the voices in the foyer stop. I hear each of his footsteps across the marble floors until he appears through the archway at the front of the living room.

“Why are you awake?” he asks.

“I waited up for you.”

“Why?” His voice is sharp, cold, and it makes all of my muscles tighten defensively.

“Because I want to talk to you.”

“Oh, now you want to talk? When there’s nothing left to talk about? You took that job without consulting me, Anastasia. You made this decision all on your own, what am I supposed to say to that?”

“You’re supposed to say your sorry.”

“Sorry? You expect me to apologize?”

“Yes, I do.”

He shakes his head in disgust and backs away from me. “No. I will not apologize for doing what I thought was best. I will not apologize for the decisions I make to protect you.”

“Protect me? Christian how on earth does this protect me?” I’m screaming loud enough that my words seem to hit him like a physical object. He cringes and then falters back again, though this time not of his own volition. It makes me take pause and when he looks up at me again, his eyes are swimming with pain.

“Anastasia.” The hoarsely whispered word echoes through my ears and then I watch in horror as he collapses to the ground. The impact shifts his jacket and I see a stain of red blood wash over his abdomen, growing darker as his skin grows pale.

“Christian?” I shriek, flying across the room to his side. “Christian, what happened to you?” His blood coats my hands as I look for wound and come up empty handed. There’s nothing for me to apply pressure to, nothing for me to fix and make him better. I can’t find the source of the bleeding, so I reach up and press my red tinted fingers into his throat, searching for a pulse.

Nothing. There’s nothing.

“No!”

“Ana!” I’m jolted awake, gasping for air, and find Christian kneeling next to the couch by my side. He’s no longer pale, no longer writhing in agony, and it takes me several seconds to realize he’s wearing something entirely different.

It was a dream.

“Hey,” he breathes, squeezing my hand in his and rubbing his thumb gently over mine. “Are you okay?”

A sob forces its way out of my chest and I throw my arms around him, hugging him as close to me as I can and breathing in his scent as though it were oxygen after too much deprivation. His strong arms wrap around me and his hand moves soothingly over my back, until I’ve stropped trembling and can speak without the impediment of tears.

I pull back and look him, drinking him in and feeling nothing but appreciation for soft gray that flickers in the light of the low burning fire. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” He leans in and kisses me, softly, but I once again wrap my arms behind his neck and pull him into me. I pour everything into that kiss. The fear from dream, the anger from our fight, and the longing that I’ve felt for him since the moment we left one another at the airport. It’s suffocating, but in a good way. Like air is not worth being apart from him for even a second. Eventually though, he breaks the kiss and rests his forehead against mine.

“You didn’t call,” I whisper.

“I didn’t want to fight. I’m hate fighting with you, Anastasia.”

“I don’t like fighting with you either, but that doesn’t mean we can just avoid conflict. We have to communicate with each other. That’s how this whole thing started in the first place. No communication.”

“I didn’t know what to say to you. I know that you’re mad and I know that you have every right to be furious with me… but I can’t tell you that I’m sorry. I’m not. If I had it to do over again, I would make the same decision. I promise you that my intentions were good and while you may not agree with me, I did it because I was trying to take care of you. That’s all I want. I’m so scared that you’re not ready for this and we’re going to lose what little progress we’ve made. I can’t watch you break again, Ana. I can’t.”

I chew on my bottom lip and reach out to cup his face in the palm of my hand. He leans into my touch, closing his eyes and reveling in the feeling of it, then looks back up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

“I’m not going to break, Christian. Not because of this. You’ve got to stop treating me like I’m fragile. I won’t tell you that I’m fine, because I know you don’t believe me when I say that, but if there is any hope of getting back to the person I used to be, then I have to move on. This is what I want to move on to. It gives me purpose and it makes me feel…” I pause trying to find the right word, but I don’t have to. He finds it for me.

“Fulfilled. You like helping others and this enables you to do that. You like solving problems, and this gives you plenty of problems to solve. You like accomplishing things on your own and feeling proud over what you’ve achieved. I know that about you. I love that about you. But the on your own thing… that’s the part that scares me.”

“Why?”

“When you’re here, I know you’re safe. Here, I have security, and gates, and codes, and panic rooms… I don’t have any of that at GSP. Nothing. No control. Sending you out there, beyond the things that I can control feels worse than terrifying. It feels impossible.”

I take a deep breath and nod. “Okay. Then… I’ll come work Grey Publishing. Just like we planned.”

“No.” He shakes his head and I automatically lean back in surprise.

“No?”

“You won’t find what you’re looking for at GP. There’s nothing for you to do there except go to work and carry on with business as usual. That’s not what you want and it was selfish of me to try and force you into it. Especially if this is what you need to heal. I should know better than anyone what it’s like to have people try and make you smaller than you know you were destined to be. So, I think you should go work at Greenwich. At GP, you’d be great. But at Greenwich, you’d be extraordinary.”

I smile. “You think so?”

“No. I know so.”

“I’m going to have to travel.”

“I know, and we’ll find a way to make that work for both of us. And for Calliope.”

“Everything I accomplish going forward is going to be against your best interest. Every author I sign will be one GP didn’t.”

“And I’ll be just proud of you as I would have been had you come to work for me. I’m your husband first, Ana. CEO, second.”

“But what about Carmen? This isn’t just a rival publishing house, this is one of the biggest competitors for your whole business.”

“And there’s something really hot about the idea of sleeping with the enemy.” He smiles, then growls slightly as he leans into me and takes my lips with his, but I quickly squirm away.

“Wait, don’t you want to go see Calliope?”

He considers this for a moment, but ultimately shakes his head. “I’ll get her up in the morning. What I want, right now, is you. Only you.” He kisses me again, and this time, I don’t fight him off. I return his passion with equal fervor and when he lifts me into his arms and carries me off to our bedroom, the only thing I find myself not content with is the all too slow speed with which he moves.

Chapter 08

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The campus tour we take the following morning with the over bubbly student orientation director isn’t the best for reminiscing over all the things I’ve missed about being a student here. Yes, we hit everything a freshman would need to be able to find, and all of the famous landmarks, but I personally wish we could have spent just a bit more time in the library or trekking through the halls of some of the buildings I used to have classes in. The focus on the needs of the freshman do, however, bring back a lot of memories of my own first year here, and as we step in for a tour of Grays Hall, it’s like I’ve entered into a time warp.

I haven’t been in this building even one time since Christian and I left for New York at the end of our one and only year here together, but nothing has changed. The piano Kate and I found him playing when we came home from a late night bonfire at the beginning of the term still stands proud right in entryway. The moment I lay eyes on the staircase before us, I am able to recall the halls above in perfect clarity, and the faint, familiar smell of must and hot lint from the laundry room that still fills the air around us almost seems to carry me up there.

The tour guide leads us into the sitting room off the side where Kate and I used to come study or watch movies when we had company. While she explains the benefits of having the in-dorm kitchenette, I drag my finger across the fabric on the back of the sofa in front of the TV, remembering one very specific night when Kate and Elliot were camped out on Christian’s floor, so he dragged me down here so we could make love in the dark. It was hot and heavy, and the memory of it makes me smile, until I remember what happened immediately after we’d finished.

BANG! BANG!

The distant sound of gunshots echo through the room and at first, I think it’s just my memories coming back to me too strongly. But the rest of the tour group suddenly erupts in screams and when Luke moves to stand between me and the door, I know it’s not just a memory.

BANG!

I turn and reach for Mia, throwing her onto the floor and covering her with my body, holding my hands over her head protectively. “Shhh. Don’t scream. Don’t scream.”

Another gunshot sounds and something falls hard and heavy onto the floor next to me. I risk a glance, but wish I didn’t when I see Luke writhing in agony, struggling to breathe.

“No!” I gasp, with tears pooling in my eyes. “Luke, no! Please!”

“Ana,” he moans back. I reach out for him, searching for the source of the blood quickly pooling over the floor beneath him, but before I find his wound, a hand clasps around my wrist and wrenches me up off the floor. There isn’t even enough time for me to react before I’m yanked around and see Andrew Lincoln’s cold familiar eyes staring down into mine.

“Gotchya!”

I scream as I’m pulled from my nightmare and find myself sitting bolt upright in the bed, gulping for air like I’ve been underwater. My entire body shakes, my face is wet and tight from my tears, but the buzzing of my phone on my nightstand quickly reminds me that everything I just saw wasn’t real. Taking a breath, I reach over, read Christian’s name across the screen, and swallow my fear as I answer the call.

“Hello?” Surprisingly, my voice isn’t as weak as I anticipated.

“What happened to ‘call me when you land and leave me a message?’” he demands.

“What?”

“I asked you to call me when you landed and leave me a message. You didn’t.”

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry. Callie had a rough time on the plane and it took us so long to get the car and get home… I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

“I know… I’m sorry, Christian. Really.”

He sighs. “You got there, that’s all I care about.”  

“We did. How was your flight?”

“Long. We’re at the hotel now but I’ve got about ten minutes before we’re leaving for the preliminary inspection.”

“Oh, so you’re just calling to check on me then?”

“And to find out how your night went. Does it feel good to be back?”

“Yeah. We drove around town to show Mia all the places she’ll need to find once she moves next fall and then ordered Angelos. The house is empty, so we mostly just played board games, but it feels good to be back. Almost like coming home.”

“Almost?”

“Well, you’re not here. No place could ever be home without you.”

He lets out a soft, sentimental breath. “I miss you.”

“Me too. I don’t like the way the bed feels when you’re not here. It’s too big. Too cold. And I stayed up far too late tonight looking up at the ceiling, remembering all the pleasant memories you and I have made in this room.”

Pleasant, huh? I’m not sure that’s the word I would use to describe the things I’ve done to you in that bed.”   

“Would you prefer ‘filthy’?”

His breath hisses between his teeth. “Oh, definitely.”

I hum and squirm beneath the covers. “Like the night before we went to Paris? You were out of control that night.”

“Or the night before your graduation.”

“With my vibrator?”

“Mhm. God, you were so fucking hot.”

“You made me come like four times…”

“Yeah.” The word comes out in a whisper, dripping with desire, and it makes my entire body shiver with want.

“Christian…” I breathe.

“Fuck, stop.”

“What?”

“We’re leaving in a few minutes and moaning my name through the phone like that is going to get me hard. This trip will be pointless if I spend the entire time we’re at the plant picturing you coming on my… ugh, stop.”

“Fine.” I sigh, and he breathes out a laugh.

“Don’t worry, baby. I’ll be more than happy to reminisce with you the moment we’re home.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Good. Kiss Calliope for me when she wakes up and tell Mia I wish her good luck tomorrow..”

“I will. I love you.”

“I love you, too. So much. Bye, baby.”

He hangs up so I reach over to place my phone back on the nightstand, then roll over and stretch my hand across the empty space in the bed next to me. Once again the memories of the night we’d spent together before my graduation begin to flood my mind, but with my baby sleeping soundly three feet away from me and my husband halfway across the world, all I can do is smile, close my eyes, and let the erotic images lull me off into a much more peaceful sleep.

The next morning, I wake up to the small, indignant sounds Calliope makes, and when I open my eyes, I find her standing up inside her pack and play, staring at me. Her face lights up the moment I look at her and she starts reaching for me.

“Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, baby,” I reply with a smile. I crawl over the top of my bed to lift her into my arms, then carry her around with me as I get ready for the day. It’s not an easy feat, because she’s being much more of a wiggle worm this morning than normal. But she babbles happily after I’ve gotten her changed and dressed and helps me while I put my makeup on. That is, if you consider demanding she be allowed to inspect each and every tube or compact I pick up before I apply it to my face as helping.

When we finally do get downstairs, we find Luke and Mia dressed and ready to go. They’re playing war with a deck of cards on the living room floor together, but Mia practically leaps to her feet the second Calliope and I descend the stairs, then bounces the entire way to the car. She’s too excited to worry about such trivial things as breakfast, but I know that if I don’t stop to feed Calliope before attempting to push her in a stroller around campus all day, we’re going to face at least one epic meltdown, so I ask Luke to pull into a tiny diner off campus. It was a place Kate and I used to go on weekends all the time, and I’m surprised when we enter that the waitress who seats us still remembers Luke and me. She even brings me a mug of hot Twinings before I’ve even ordered.

“Your daughter is a shameless flirt,” Luke says, nodding to the table next to us. I turn to look, and see an elderly couple in the next booth, and the old man seated there smiles and waves at Calliope, who smiles shyly in return.

“Can you say, hi?” I ask, gripping her toes through her shoes and shaking her foot.

“Hi, hi,” she repeats, her eyes wide with excitement.

“Well hello, young lady,” the old man says. “You’re very cute.”  She makes a small giggling sound, and the man turns to me. “How old is she?”

“Almost ten months.”

“That’s a good age. Enjoy it. They grow up far too quickly.”

“I will.” I smile back at him and his eyes twinkle. He then pulls his wife’s hand up from under the table and presses his lips into her fingers. She beams and then scoops up a bite of hashbrowns to feed her husband and as he makes a playful show of eating them off her fork, I suddenly feel flushed with warmth. The love between them is so obvious, even in their golden years. And as I force myself to look away, I think to myself, that’s going to be Christian and me in sixty years.

 

We hurry through breakfast and then make our way to the campus. There’s a giant sign outside the building where we’re supposed to register that says FYRE, First Year Retreat and Experience, and after getting signed in and being assigned to an upperclassman ambassador, we file into an auditorium for a pre-orientation presentation.The student volunteers put on a skit about student life at Harvard and play a few games with the crowd to get all the new students hyped up. It’s corny, but just like Kate and I did before our freshman year, Mia eats it up. It makes me wonder if Christian went through this same program, and if he did, how much he detested every second of it.

“Alright!” the girl, who I think is probably in charge, chirps excitedly from the stage. “I think it’s time you all got out there and got to experience Harvard for yourself. Everyone meet up with your counselors, and lets get this fun filled weekend off to an amazing start!”

I try to hide my judgemental smile as I turn to Luke, who rolls his eyes, but we get out of chairs and follow Mia to the cheerful looking girl wearing the name tag that matches the name of the counselor she was assigned. There are parents present, accompanying the other people in Mia’s group, so Luke and I hang back with them and let Mia play the introduction games with her peers on her own. I think the presentation we just sat through might have been a little over stimulating for Calliope, because she sits quietly on my hip, looking around with mild interest, until eventually she rests her head on my shoulder and falls asleep. It makes following Mia’s group out of the building much easier, because I can lay Callie in her stroller and close the shade to keep the sun off of her, instead of fighting to keep her still and quiet.

The tour itself is actually a lot more fun and interactive than I anticipated. Our tour guide is very knowledgeable about the history of the campus and provides some interesting facts even I hadn’t know. Outside the math building, she tells us that when Harvard first opened its doors to students, Calculus wasn’t a class that was offered because in 1636, it hadn’t been invented yet. I did know that notable Harvard alumni included eight people who signed the Declaration of Independence and eight Presidents, but I didn’t know that the grooves in the sidewalks near the dorms weren’t just from age and decay, but rather from students throwing cannonballs out of their windows during the Revolutionary War. Turns out, the Old Yard is its own kind of war zone, and as our tour guide talks about student life during each of the World Wars, I glance up and see Grays Hall standing tall and proud directly across the lawn.

Suddenly, the talk of memorials for fallen students feels all too familiar and the cold memory of my nightmare from last night washes over me like a phantom. Knowing that I still have some residual feelings over what happened, which may be exacerbated by all that I’m still working through from last summer, I’m suddenly not sure that I want to go in. It had been something I was looking forward to before we arrived, I wanted to be able to relive those early memories I had with Christian. But now I’m realizing, while the gunshots from my dream echo through my mind, that some of those memories might be better left in the past.

“Hey,” Luke whispers, leaning into me so he won’t be overheard by the rest of the group. “It’s nearly noon and it’s not like he works a full day. If we’re going to do this, we need to go.”

Oh, thank god. I hadn’t realized how late in the day it was getting. It looks like I’m going to miss Grays Hall anyway.

“Oh, right. I—um…” In my split second of hesitation, the tour guide turns and begins leading the group into the Holworthy dormitory. But as Mia bounds ahead, my phone rings in my bag, giving me an excuse to lag behind.

“Ana?” she checks, stopping and looking back at me with a raised eyebrow. “You coming?”

“Go ahead, I’ll catch up with you later.” She raises an eyebrow, so I give her a dismissive smile, then step to the side of the wide walkway and begin digging for my phone. The number displayed on the screen is unfamiliar, telling me only that the call is coming from New York. But I still get enough calls regarding Escape from Random House that I don’t hesitate before answering it.

“Hello?”

“I do understand the publishing industry in Seattle,” a vaguely familiar voice replies.

“Excuse me?”

“You said I don’t, but I do. I know very well who you are, Anastasia.” There’s half a beat of silence before she begins to speak again, and though she doesn’t stop to introduce herself, I realize very quickly that the voice belongs to Carmen Gallagher from Greenwich Small Press. Though I have no idea why she’s calling me. “I heard all about the infamous college intern Grey hired for the GEH/SIP acquisition and how quickly you turned it around and made it successful. We were chasing Boyce Fox and you swiped him right out from under us. My people tried to stop you and when they couldn’t, I demanded answers as to why someone who had no experience in this industry bested them. I tried so hard to capitalize on all the bad press you and Grey got that summer over those sexual harassment allegations, all to no avail, and I’ve been meeting with tech engineers for almost a year trying to create a prototype for a e-reader tablet to compete with the one you released through Grey Publishing. I’ve read Escape. I’ve seen you speak at conferences and on TV. I know who you are. But when Christian Grey calls your office and says he’ll owe you a personal favor for just not hiring his wife, you take it. And I did. I didn’t give you a fair interview, I didn’t even consider you as a viable option. I chased you out. It was a calculated decision based on what I thought I’d be able to get out of Grey and the likelihood we’d find another suitable candidate to take over at GSP. But I made the wrong choice. I’ve gone through five additional interviews since we met and not one of the candidates I’ve seen can hold a candle to your resume or your track record. You were right, we need you, Anastasia. So, if you’ll accept my most sincere apology for the way I spoke to you in that interview, the way I dismissed you, I’d love it if you and I could start over and you’d come help me run my publishing company.”

The sincerity that drips from every word she says floors me. I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me and it takes me a few seconds before I can catch my breath enough to respond. “I’m sorry… what did you say?”

“I’m offering you the job, Anastasia. I’d be so grateful to have you on the team at GSP.”

“No, before. About Christian. He told you not to hire me?”

“Yes. And… I don’t want to start anything between a husband and wife, but I don’t want you to think that I dismissed you because I don’t believe in what you’re capable of. I do. I just didn’t realize when I chose to take what Grey was offering how rare of a find you really were.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose and try to shake away the millions of arguments crowding my head. “I-um… I’m sorry. I’m actually in the middle of a campus tour with my little sister, can I call you back on Monday?”

“Absolutely. I know this a big decisions, so take your time. This is my personal cell phone, so you can call me back on this number when you’ve made up your mind, or you can reach out to Wallace. If you still have his business card…”

“I do. Thank you, Ms. Gallagher.”

“Carmen, please. And… Thank you, Anastasia. I really hope you’ll come on board with us.”

“I’ll think about it. Good-bye.” Without waiting for her salutation, I hang up and start looking wildly through the open yard in front of me, trying to make sense of that phone call. I can feel white hot anger rising up inside of me, but I’m also keenly aware that Carmen Gallagher is one of my husband’s biggest competitors and could be saying anything to prevent me from going back to GP. That entire conversation could have been a lie and I trust my husband enough to at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

“So…” Luke says. “Are we going or…?”

“Hold on.” I pick up my phone again and search for Christian’s name, hoping that he’s not too busy with whatever he’s doing in Taiwan right now to pick up.

“Hey, how’s it going?” he answers. “Has she been able to pick a dorm yet? Don’t let her pick Stoughton. Ros lived there freshman year and she said there were times they didn’t even have heat.”

“Did you tell Carmen Gallagher not to hire me?”

“What?”

Good. That seems like genuine surprise. “I just got a phone call from Carmen Gallagher. She offered me the job GSP and told me that the only reason she behaved the way she did in the interview was because you promised to owe her a personal favor if she didn’t hire me.”

“Uh…”

Shit, that’s less confident. “Did you?”

“Well, um…”

“Don’t lie to me, Christian. It’s a yes or no question. Did you ask her not to hire me?” He hesitates for a moment, but eventually, I hear a soft whispered fuck through the phone, and I know Carmen wasn’t lying.

“How dare you!

“Ana, I didn’t think you’d–”

“What? Find out?”

“No. I didn’t think this was really what you wanted. I thought you were pushing yourself into something that was going to make you unhappy because you were trying to prove to me that you were moving on.”

“Now you’re upset that I’m trying to move on? That’s all you’ve been trying to get me to do for six months! This was a good step, Christian. This was healthy. This was my career!.”

“You’re a writer, Anastasia. Not a publishing executive. That is your career.” His tone is cautious, but defensive, and it lights the fuse inside of me, releasing all of the anger I’d previously tried to extinguish.

“You don’t get to decide that for me. I needed this, Christian. This was the first thing that made me feel like I was going to come out the other side of this, that made me feel normal, and you tainted it. I mean, I accepted your less that sympathetic attitude when I didn’t get the job as celebration that you’d got me to come work at Grey Publishing, but now… why did you even make me that offer? If you think I should focus on writing, why ask me to come work for you?”

“You would have gone to another publishing house. At GP, I could have…” He stops, and my teeth clench together in anger.

“You could have what?”

Again, it takes him a second to answer, and when he does, it’s the cold, calculated CEO who responds, not my husband. “You wouldn’t have lasted long.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that… If you were at GP, I could have made you see reason.”

“Reason? You mean, you could have made me see that I would be better off at home, waiting for you to return from work like the perfect doting wife?”

“Don’t turn this into a sexism thing, Anastasia. Me wanting you to be at home has nothing to do with some misogynistic housewife fantasy.”

“Oh, really? Enlighten me then, Christian. Tell me how purposely sabotaging my career was actually really forward thinking.”

“You weren’t being realistic, Anastasia. You’re not ready for what you were about to sign up for. This job you think you want isn’t one Saturday at conference in SeaTac. It’s nine to five, Monday through Friday, every week. And that doesn’t include travel.”

“I’m fully aware of what the job entailed, Christian.”

“Are you? Because three weeks ago, I practically had to drag you onto a plane to get you to come to the Maldives with me for one week because you didn’t want to leave Calliope. GSP is headquartered in New York and you were applying for a corporate executive position. Do you realize how often you’d have to travel back and forth across the country?”

“Probably not as often as I did it when I was in school. You didn’t have a problem with it then and it was just as hard for me to be away from you as it is for me to be away from Calliope.”

“Then consider what’s really at stake here. It’s not just about when you’ll have to fly to New York. You’re going to be obligated to travel for book tours, promotional events, writing conferences… Elizabeth leaves Seattle every two weeks chasing her authors around or trying to draw in new ones. Are you prepared to leave your family that often?”

“What about you? You’re in Taiwan for business right now. You fly to New York all the time. And even when you are in Seattle, there are days when you work twelve, thirteen hours at a time. It’s not all that rare that Calliope will wake up in the morning after you’ve left and go to bed before you get home.”

“And I hate it. I hate it when I go a single day without spending time with her. I hate that she’s in Cambridge right now with you instead of both of you being here with me. If you take this job, you’ll never be here with me.”

“So, once again, it’s all about GEH.”

“Ana…”

“No, Christian. You can go ahead and call Elizabeth, tell her I won’t be starting on Monday. I’ve accepted another position, so I’m no longer available.”

“Baby, please don’t… Just wait until we get home and we can talk.”

“Oh believe me, we’re going to talk when we get home.” I hang up the phone, seething. Hot, angry tears pool in my eyes as I have no real way to release the feelings of hurt and betrayal bubbling up inside of me. I want to scream. I want to hit something. But I don’t get to do either of those things.

“So…” Luke says awkwardly. “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” I snap back.

“Okay. I’m fully convinced that’s true, so what do you want to do? Are we going to do this, or are we going after Mia.”

I turn to look at him, my jaw tight and my grip like a vice around Calliope’s stroller. “Of course we’re going to do this. It’s why we’re here.”

It takes us longer than I expected to get across campus, so when we step through the double doors at the front of the building, we’re a little bit later than I wanted to be. It’s very possible he could be out to lunch, or gone for the day, and if I’ve missed him, I don’t know that I’m going to get another chance at this.

“Can I help you?” the receptionist behind the front desk asks.

“Yes. My name is Anastasia… uh, Steele. I’m here to see Astor Harrington, please.”

Her brow crinkles. “I’m sorry, are you one of Mr. Dennison’s clients?”

“No, I’m just here to see Mr. Harrington.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Steele. Mr. Harrington is still a law student. He’s not a licensed attorney. I can refer you to one our partners…”

“Oh, no. I’m not here for legal advice. I’m a… A friend. An old friend, from school.”

“Right. Well, I do believe Mr. Harrington is currently very busy with trial prep but I’ll see if he’s available.” She gestures to the seats in the tiny waiting room, smiles, then gets out of her seat and disappears down the hall.

“You’re sure he’ll come talk to you?” Luke asks.

I bite my lip. “No. But unless you’ve somehow discovered he’s also in the country on an expired visa, this is really our best shot.”

“And you’re sure it’s a good idea? I mean, we have Calliope with us. I’m already worried that this kind of thing might be exposing you to danger, adding the baby to that…”

“It’s fine.” I glance down at Callie, who’s woken up and is currently enraptured by the toys dangling from the handle of her carrier, like a mobile. She’ll be safe, so long as he agrees to my terms. “Harrington’s not violent,” I explain. “That’s not why we’re here.”

“If he’s not violent, why do we care so much about him?”

“We care because Christian wanted to invite him to our wedding.”

“And… he brings bad gifts?”

“They’re enemies. They’ve hated each other since the day they met. When he was here at Harvard, they were constantly trying to one up each other. To come out on top by getting the best of the other. And Christian wanted to send an invitation to him is a clear indication he’s not over their stupid little feud.”

“But if he’s not violent, that’s all just harmless competition, isn’t it? I mean, this guy wasn’t involved with Lincoln.”

I shake my head. “That doesn’t matter. Astor’s not violent but he’s a schemer. And he has money, just like Lincoln. I don’t think he’s a threat right now, but that doesn’t mean he never will be. Especially if he and Christian ever cross paths again. This is a threat we’re eliminating before it becomes a problem.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“Anastasia?” The receptionist has returned and smiles warmly at me. “You’re in luck. Mr. Harrington is available.”

“Thank you.” I get up out of my chair, but stop as Luke does the same and moves to follow after me. “Stay here with Calliope. I’ll only be few minutes.”

“Ana…”

“I’ll be back. Five minutes, tops.”

He doesn’t seem to be convinced by my overly cavalier attitude, but I don’t have time to argue with him. If we leave Mia for too long, there will be questions, and I don’t want Astor to think I’m here just to waste his time. So, I turn from Luke and follow after the receptionist, leaving him behind, hovering nervously over my baby’s stroller.

I’m led down a long hallway and into an office at the back of the building. It’s small, and crammed full of boxes, like the kind you’d pack all of your things in if you lost your job, and sitting at the table that takes up most of the space is the man who, the last time I saw him, tried to break Christian and me up by forcefully shoving his tongue down my throat.

“Anastasia?” he asks, getting to his feet.

“Hi. I’m sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Not at all. Please,  come in.” He nods to the receptionist, who exits the room and closes the door behind her, while I move forward and take a seat at the table.

“You look good,” I offer as a compliment.

“Yeah, so do you. Uh, I read that you and Grey got married last summer. How’s he doing?”

“Oh, great. Yeah, he’s busy and that’s always good for him, and the company is doing well. We’re great.”

“Good.” The pleasant smile he gives me shifts, and he seems to be gnawing on the inside of his cheek in the brief second before he speaks again. “I… also read about what happened to you last year. There was… a break in?”

My throat tightens. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been terrifying.”

“It was, but we’re moving on. I actually came to see you because I wanted to talk about what you planned to do after Harvard.”

“Awh, man. Honestly, I’ve been so buried in legal research for this trial I’m working on that I haven’t even really had time to consider that. I think I might get an offer from Dennison to come work for his firm, but it hasn’t come yet. Why?”

“Well, I don’t know if you know this but I’m a published author now and I’m actually gearing up for my second release. It’s a lot of contracts and negotiations… My father in law was our family lawyer and handled all my legal work, but he was recently elected as the Mayor of Seattle, so he’s kind of retired from lawyering now. I need to hire someone new.”

“And you want me?”

“You come very highly recommended, and we have a history. That makes me more comfortable than hiring a stranger. And I know that publishing contracts probably don’t sound very exciting, but I promise you… it won’t ever be dull. Believe me. I’m actually here with Christian’s little sister right now, she’s going to be a freshman next year, and if he wasn’t already paying for her to go to school, he would have done it through all the legal fees he’s paid to his father over the past few years.”

“You… want me to be your personal legal counsel?”

“Permanently on retainer, yes. And I’ll make it worth your while. Whatever other offers you get, I’ll beat them. I’ll pay moving expenses, living expenses, benefits packages… whatever you need.”

“That’s very generous”

“I can afford to be.”

“And… your husband? He’s okay with you bringing me on board. I mean… he hates me.”

I swallow, fight to control the quiver in my voice that would give away the lie I’m about to tell, and shake my head. “No, he doesn’t. Actually, he was the one who pointed me in your direction. You’ll be working solely for me and I don’t anticipate the two of you will have any interaction with each other, but I think that he gave me your name because he’s ready to bury the hatchet. Move on. Life’s too short to hold a grudge and we’re both ready to build a bridge with you and move on.”

He smiles. “I agree.”

“Good. Then, you’ll come on board?”

“Um…” He stutters and his mouth hangs open like he’s not sure what he should say, but after a long introspective pause, he nods. “Yeah. I mean, I feel like I’d be insane not to, right?”

“Really? That’s great. I’m so glad to hear you say that because I think that we could really work well together.”

“I think so too.”

“Then, I’ll give you this.” I reach into my bag and pull out a business card with Luke’s contact information on it. “Luke Sawyer will be in contact with you once your workload settles down. He kind of takes care of everything for me so unless I’ve got a personal request, he’ll be the one you’re most likely to hear from. You can call him for anything and he can help you get situated after graduation.”

“Sounds great.”

“Good, then I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Yeah. Hey, thanks for coming in today, Anastasia. Or… Mrs. Grey?”

“Ana,” I reply with a smile. “I’m still just Ana.”

“Ana, then. I’ll see you soon.”

“Yes you will.” I turn to leave, but pause at the door and glance back at him. “And Astor?”

“Yes?”

“Good luck with your trial.”

“Thanks.”

I wink and leave the room, feeling the same sense of vindication cross over me that I felt leaving the dry cleaners a week ago. It’s stronger than just relief. It’s power, potent enough to wash away the left over anxiety I’ve been carrying since I remembered my dream and once again felt the loss and pain over what happened to Kate in Grays Hall my freshman year. I feel tranquil. At peace. And most importantly, in control. That feeling carries me back into the reception area, like I’m walking on air.

“Well?” Luke asks, looking nervous. I turn to smile at the receptionist, thank her for her hospitality, and then nod with my head towards the door so Luke follows me outside. He gets the hint, and steers Calliope out after me, but starts demanding answers again the moment we’re back in the courtyard.

“What happened?”

“He’s coming on as my person legal counsel once he graduates, and Christian doesn’t need to know about it. At least not until I can smooth that over. I’m going to need you to coordinate this for me. Pay him whatever he asks, give him whatever he wants. Just keep him happy and keep an eye on him.”

“You think that’s going to woo him to your side?”

“I know it will.”

“Alright. Then I’ll…”

“Ana?” We both turn in the direction my name is being called, and curiosity turns to shock when I see a slightly frazzled looking Carter Reed walking towards us. His backpack is weighed down and his arms are full of even more books.

“Carter?” I say in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 07

looking_east_on_garfield_st2c_cambridge_ma

It’s gloomy when we pull into the departure lane at SEA-TAC airport. The road and sidewalks are covered by a long, cement overhang, but everything around us as we come to a stop still shines with the moisture from the rain slicking off passing cars. Mia is the first out of the back of the SUV Christian called for us this morning and she bounces with excitement as she waits for the driver to open the back hatch door so she can retrieve her luggage. I, however, am much more reluctant as I pull the car seat holding my sleeping baby out of the car and follow after her. Christian, who scans the cars pulling up to the curb around us as we wait for the driver to hand my purple carry-on over, mirrors my less than enthusiastic attitude.

“He’s late,” he says.

“Not really,” I counter. “We’re early.”  

“Well, I’m not going to leave you until I know you have security.” His mouth thins as, for the tenth time this morning, he clenches his teeth together with irritation. “Sick. Of all the stupid things…”

“I’m not getting on a flight or asking someone to follow Calliope and I around for days when they’re ill. The last thing I need is to miss my first day at GP because I have to stay home to take care of a sick baby.”

“I assure you, your boss’s boss would forgive you.”

“Well, then it sounds like my boss’s boss is very understanding of illnesses keeping employees from performing their duties and therefore understands why Woods can’t be here today.”

His frown deepens. “Don’t do that.”

“Christian, we’re going to be fine. No one on your team knows Cambridge or the security system we installed in the house last year better than Luke. He’s the best person to come with us and the fact that he agreed on such short notice is very generous. He doesn’t owe me his time anymore.”

“I know. Believe me, I am acutely aware of just how generous Sawyer is being.” He turns away from me, seemingly to look at the new group of cars pulling in around us, but I can tell that he’s pouting. It reminds me of what Luke said about Taylor having someone follow him around and Christian’s reason why.

“Mia,” I say, twisting my body so I can face her without fully turning away from Christian. “Will you take Callie for a minute, please?”

She looks up from the text she’s sending on her phone, then nods and reaches out for the carseat. Once my hands are free, I reach up for Christian’s face and force him to look at me.

“You know that I love you, right?”

“I love you, too.”

I shake my head. “No, I mean I love you, Christian. You have absolutely nothing to worry about when it comes to Luke. Nothing. I promise.”

He takes a breath and slowly the tension melts away from his lips. “I know.”

“Good.” I rise up onto my tip toes so I can kiss him again, and when I sink back onto my heels, he reaches up to hold my face in his hands and brushes his thumbs over my cheeks.

“What am I going to do without you this weekend?”

“Probably get a few good nights of sleep.” I laugh, and while I’m able to coax just the smallest hint of a smile out of him, he shakes his head.

“Without these lips to kiss goodnight or these beautiful blue eyes to wake up to? Never.”

“Mmm,” I hum, pushing myself further into him. “That’s quite the line, Mr. Grey.”

His eyes flash. “But it’s effective.”

With more hunger than before, his hand moves down to grip my jaw so he can hold me in place, but just as his lips being to assault mine, we’re interrupted by an insistent snapping and Ros’ irritated voice as she leans out the window to glare at my husband.

“Christian, let’s go!”

His shoulders slump. “Remind me again why I don’t fire her.”

“Because if you did, you’d spend a whole lot more than a weekend away from your family. Now, get out of here. Go whip your fancy international factory into shape, or at least give him them a good scare.”

“I’m not leaving you until you have security, Anastasia.”

“He’ll be here any minute.”

“No, I’m not…” But before he can get the words out, the passenger side door of the sedan that just pulled up in front of us opens and Luke steps out onto the curb.

“You see,” I say, smiling up at Christian. “There he is.”

He turns and looks over his shoulder at the white car Luke vacated, but I only get to enjoy a few seconds of gloating before the driver’s door opens and my sense of haughty superiority is replaced by surprise. Jade is dropping him off, and that’s very unlike Luke.

“Hey,” Luke calls over to Christian and I as he pulls his luggage out of Jade’s trunk. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” I reply. He nods, then sets his suitcase down on the asphalt so he can pull Jade into his arms and kiss her goodbye. It’s not a quick kiss, it’s slow and meaningful. His hands reach back into her hair as he kisses her and even after she pulls away, he quickly leaves another sweet peck against her lips before fully releasing her.

“I’ll see you Sunday?” he asks, quiet enough that I can only make out the words because I can read his lips. She gives him an elated, sentimental smile in response and nods. Then, with one last kiss, he squeezes her hands, turns for his luggage, and drags it over to Christian, Mia, and me.

“Well, let’s do this,” he says, winking as he moves past me. I nod and turn back to Christian.

“Call me when you land and leave me a message,” he tells me. “I’ll still be in the air when you arrive in Cambridge but I want to know you arrived safe the moment I touch down.”

“I will. And call me when you get to Taiwan, no matter what time it is.”

“Okay.” He leans down and kisses me again, and the amount of emotion he pours into the contact of our lips is potent enough that one would think he was preparing not to see me for months rather than a few days. It feels that way, I guess, and even though we’ve lived apart for weeks at a time before and we’re both going to be so busy over the weekend that we probably won’t even have time to actually miss each other, saying goodbye now has me a little choked up. I don’t like that he’s going to be so far away from me. I don’t like that I’m not going to know where he is, what he’s doing, or whether or not Taylor is with him every second he’s not with me. And it’s been so long since we’ve been apart… I don’t want to miss him, but I already do.

“I love you,” I tell him again, throwing my arms around him and holding him as tightly against me as possible.

“And I love you. Send me pictures of Calliope, and…” He pulls me back so he can look into my eyes and smirks. “Feel free to send nudes.”

I laugh, but when I lean in to scrunch the tip of my nose against his, I inch my lips close to his and say, “Ditto.”

“Alright, love birds,” Mia interrupts. “We’re going to miss our flight.”

“Thank you, Mia,” Luke agrees, rolling his eyes.

I shake my head with annoyance, then hug Christian one last time before stepping back and taking Callie out of Mia’s hands so she can say goodbye to her brother.

“Be good,” he tells her. “Have fun, ask questions, and make good choices.” He glances up at me, standing a few paces behind them. “You never know how the dorm you select could change your life.”

“I will. Love you, Christian.”

“Love you too, Meems.” They hug, but Mia’s phone starts to buzz half a second after he gets his arms around her, so she quickly struggles out of his embrace and takes the handle of her luggage so she can make for the automatic doors into the airport. “Bye, Christian! Have fun in Taiwan.”

He shakes his head, but waves, then turns back to me. “Have a good weekend. Call me.”

“I will,” I tell him. “Bye.”

“Bye.”

I smile and turn to follow after Mia, Luke dragging along beside me. He too looks over his shoulder a few times, until we’ve made it close enough to the ticket kiosks that we can no longer see the people we’ve left behind in the departure lane.

“So, Jade dropped you off, huh?” I ask, trying to sound as casual as possible when really I’m probing for information.

“Yeah, it’s like $40 a day to park here. Not all of us are billionaires.”

“I would have paid your parking, Luke.”

“Nah, it’s cool.” He shakes his head as he slips his credit card into the machine so he can print his boarding pass. I can tell how hard he’s struggling to keep his expression neutral and uninterested, and it probably would have worked on anyone but me.

“Oh my god, you really like her!”

“Yeah, she’s cool.”

“Lucas Sawyer! Don’t play coy with me, I’m your best friend and I want the details.”

“Best friend, huh?”

My expression hardens. “Yes, best friend. Kate’s my sister now, so you’ve been promoted.”

“Oh, good. I’m your spare.”

“And I’ll kill the spare if you don’t start talking right now.”

He laughs. “Solid Harry Potter joke.”

“Luke!”

“Fine.” He sighs. “She and I started hooking up about five, six months ago. It wasn’t supposed to be a thing, but she wasn’t clingy and I could take her out for pizza and beer without her bitching about it not being fancier or ordering a bullshit salad. I like her, so what?”

“So, why didn’t you tell me about her?”

“Because you’re very… excited about things. I just watched you slobbering all over your husband outside and I can’t even count the number of times I’ve needed noise cancelling headphones from just living across the hall from you two. You’re living your fairytale, and that’s never going to be me. I don’t want to get your hopes up.”

“First of all,” I say, indignantly. “Christian and I don’t slobber. We are romantic and in love and, while I’ve never seen it played back for me, I imagine that the sex we have is beautiful. Second of all, I only get excited because I’m happy for you and if you like her and want her in your life then I want to know her and be friends with her.”

He rolls his eyes. “Just get your ticket.”

“Fine, I’ll get it all out of you eventually. Don’t you worry about that.” I turn to the kiosk in front of me, card in hand, and frown. “But… it’s been actual years since I’ve done this. Help me.”

“Rich people,” Mia says, rolling her eyes as she pulls her ticket from the dispensing tray next to me. I narrow my eyes at her.

“You have a trust fund…”

She pushes the handle of Calliope’s carseat into the crook of her elbow and raises an eyebrow at me. “And you graduated from Harvard. Read the instructions.”

“She’s too fancy to read, Mia,” Luke says, then drops his voice to a whisper and looks around like he’s worried someone will hear him. “She’s Anastasia Grey.”

“I hate you both.” They laugh as I nudge Luke out of the way with my body and then slip my card into the machine, following the instructions until I have a boarding pass in hand. Luke and Mia both start applauding for me when I turn around, drawing the attention of everyone around us, so I can’t even come up with a biting comeback.

“Oh my god, stop!” I hiss, covering my face to hide my humiliation and pushing them away from the other passengers printing their tickets. But their continued cackling all the way down the concourse does nothing to alleviate the curious onlookers.

For the first time since I told Mia I’d come with her, I’m starting to regret asking Woods to stay behind.

 

There’s a long line of people winding through a complicated maze of stanchions and retractable belts once we get to airport security. While we slowly inch our way forward and remove our shoes, liquids, and electronics, I realize that I’ve taken having a private jet at my disposal for granted. It’s almost unnerving how close we’re being watched as we place our bags on the conveyor belt and then step through the body scanning machine. Thankfully, they save me a potential meltdown by letting me bring Calliope through the metal detectors inside of her car seat, instead of forcing me to wake her up and carry her through in my arms, but when Luke is pulled aside for a random check, we’re nearly late for our flight.

“I left my gun at home, what more do they want from me?” he asks irritably while we walk as quickly as possible to our gate. “I feel like this is some kind of racial profiling.”

I give him a slanted, sideways glance. “Racial profiling of a 30 year old white man?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Statistically, you are the most dangerous demographic,” Mia says. “White men are more likely to commit mass shootings or become serial killers. I mean, just look at Andrew Lincol…” Her sentence drops as she looks over at me, so I quickly divert my gaze and try to redirect my suddenly derailed train of thought, all the while tightening my grip on my daughter’s car seat. Luke reaches over to push Mia, knocking her slightly off balance.   

“Hey, statistically, why don’t you shut up?”

“You can’t talk to me like that.”

“Yes I can. I don’t work for Grey anymore, you’re fair game. Welcome to the Hurt Locker, internet-meems.”

Mia shakes her head and glances up to the ceiling as we finally begin approaching our gate. “You’re so annoying. No wonder Christian hates you.”

Luke hands his boarding pass to the woman waiting impatiently at the gate and then turns back to glare are Mia. “No, he hates me because, despite his billions of dollars and ridiculously chiseled good looks, he knows that I could still dunk on him in a game of one on one.”

I laugh and hand my boarding pass over, then wrap an arm around Mia so I can drag her down the gangway with Calliope and me, and into the already crowded airplane. Thankfully, our seats take up an entire aisle, plus an additional seat directly across from us, so we don’t have to climb over anyone as we fumble to put our luggage in the overhead bins and then slip into our seats. Mia sits in the lone chair across the aisle, so I buckle Calliope’s carseat in next to the window and take the middle spot while Luke relaxes back into the seat on the aisle.

“Hey,” Mia hisses, to get Luke’s attention as the plane starts to move and the flight attendants begin their safety demonstration. “Just for the record, Christian is, 6’3, and you’re maybe 6 foot… he’d be way better at basketball than you.”

Luke smiles. “Nah, I’m like Muggsy Bogues. I’d kick his ass.”

“Who’s Muggsy Bogues?”

“Oh my god, Amelia. Who do you– I can’t even look at you right now. Look away and think about what you just said to me.”

She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, then settles back into her seat, focusing her attention on the flight attendant, and pulls out the safety cards from the back of the seat in front of her.

 

There’s no wait before takeoff, so it’s only a few minutes from when the safety demonstration ends to when we start nearing cruising altitude. The passengers around us start settling in, isolating themselves with iPods or portable movie players. Callie is somehow, miraculously, still asleep, so I take what time I have before she wakes to relax with the book I’ve packed in my carry-on. The story isn’t my normal preference, but it was written by a new author who has found amazing success in a short period of time. And since I’m just about to start work running the fiction department at Grey Publishing, I figure I’d better get my finger on the pulse of the market sooner, rather than later.

“I’ve moved in with her,” Luke says, pulling me out of the story just as I was starting to lose myself.

“What?”

“Jade and I, we’re living together.”

“What do you mean you’re living together? You moved in with her? When?”

“About a month ago. We were spending almost every night together anyway, it didn’t make much sense for us to have seperate apartments.”

“No, it wouldn’t, but… oh my god, you’re really serious about her.”

He shrugs.

“Luke! Start talking.”

“I just told you we’re living together, what more do you want from me?”

“Details. Explicit details.”

“Look, I love you, Ana. You’re my best friend and I want to talk to you about these things. I’m trying. But… I’m not good at this. I’ve never done serious relationships before and… I’m actually a little freaked out over it.” He takes a breath. “I want to talk to you about her, but you need to let me do it at my own pace, okay?”

“Are you in love with her?”

“Ana.” He groans.

“I’m not trying to be pushy. Really. I just want to know that you’re happy. All the other stuff I can live without or wait until you’re ready to tell me, but if you’re actually in love with her, I want to know that.”

He lets out a huff and sinks back into his seat with reluctant contemplation. I give him a moment, and eventually, he nods.

“Yeah. I think I’m in love with her.”

“Awhhhhhh.”

Don’t make that face at me, Anastasia.”

I try to reign in my grin. “Sorry, but… you’re in love!”

“You’re the worst, you know that?” He shakes his head in dismay, but I can tell that beneath the impassive, unfeeling facade he’s trying to keep up, there’s a hint of pride in his eyes. And yes, happiness.

I beam at him and knock him with my shoulder. “You love me.”

“Yeah, apparently I’m all kinds of soft now.”

“It looks good on you.” I squeeze his hand on the arm rest between us and shift back into my seat so I can continue with my book, but all the questions I suddenly have about this new revelation feel like they’re boiling in my brain.

“Okay, I lied,” I say, setting the book down and turning towards him again. “How did you two meet? Where did you have your first kiss? Is she in love with you too? Has she said it? How did you end up moving in together? And what’s the sex like?”

“Ana!”

“Oh please, you’re my best friend, you can talk to me about your sex life. Do you know how much I know about Elliot’s penis? I could draw you a picture.”

“Gross,” Mia says. She shoots a look of disgust between Luke and I, then puts her headphones in so she’s no longer forced to listen to our conversation. I grin, but keep my attention fixated on Luke.

“It’s fine,” he concedes.

“Fine? You’re going to live with fine?” He gives me a hard, unamused look, but I don’t relent. And, eventually, he gives in.

“It’s incredible, alright? She’s hot and dirty and she can put her legs behind her head.”

“Behind her head, huh?”

“Tip of the iceberg, Ana. Tip. Of. The. Iceberg.

“I’m so happy for you,” I reply with a smile, and he shakes his head again, trying to tell me that he’s done with the conversation. But as I pick up my book again, another thought crosses my mind. “Wait, if you’re living with her, what happened to the apartment I’m paying for every month?”

“Gotta have somewhere to track down all your husband’s enemies. There’s a lot that goes into this whole take-on-the-world-head-first plan that you’ve come up with and if Jade sees the strings on the wall attaching all the pictures and newspaper articles I’ve put together, she’s going to think I’m insane.”

“But you are insane. Remember that time when I was still seven months pregnant and you ate my last pack of Scooby-Doo fruit snacks? That’s not the behavior of a mentally healthy individual.”

He laughs. “Touche.”

“You don’t really have strings on the wall, do you?”

“Nah. But I do work there. I like to think of it as my own personal bat cave.”

“Batman, huh? You really think you can pull off Batman?”

“In terms of muscle tone, near genius intellect, and the ability to whoop someone’s ass? Yes.”

I bite my lip to hold back my laugh. “Mmm, I don’t know. I think you have more of a Aquaman-vibe about you. You know, generally useless…”

He snorts, then covers his mouth to hide his smile. “I hate you sometimes.”

“No you don’t, you’re my Sam.”

“Sam?”

“Yeah, like Samwise Gamgee.”

He raises an eyebrow. “I’m like your servant?”

“No! I’m your best friend too. And you’re the person I know will always have my back. Who will listen to me and be there for me when I need you. You’re the person I’d take into Mordor with me.”

He smiles. “First Harry Potter, now Lord of the Rings? You’re such a goddamn nerd.”

“First of all, how dare you. Lord of the Rings is the greatest story ever told and I will not sit back and let you pretend that you don’t know every single line of The Fellowship of the Ring from start to finish when the movie isn’t even playing.”

“Yeah,” he says, laughing. “It’s actually pretty sick. And Sam is the real hero, so obviously that’s me.”

I laugh, then shift in my seat to continue reading, but just as I get comfortable the plane jolts from unexpected turbulence and the peaceful morning we’ve had so far suddenly melts away as Calliope is yanked out of sleep and starts calling for dada.  

 

It’s very late in the afternoon when we finally touch down in Boston. It takes us nearly thirty minutes to wind our way through the crowded terminal for our checked bags and the shuttle that takes us to the car rental facility, then another 45 minutes of waiting in line before I’m finally handed the keys to the luxury car Christian reserved for us last week. So the sun is almost completely gone by the time we’re loading our luggage into the trunk and buckling a squirmy Calliope in the backseat.

When we pull onto the I-90 West towards Cambridge, Mia immediately becomes absorbed with every sign we pass, trying to memorize as much as she can.

“I-90? That’s cool,” she  says. “At least it won’t take me long to learn the name of the interstate, seeing as the freeway to my house back home is also called I-90.”

“It’s the same interstate,” I tell her. “I-90 starts in Seattle proper and ends at Logan International Airport. It’s the road Kate and I took whenever we had to drive home.”

“Really? That’s so cool.”

“Yeah. It used to make me feel a little better about the distance between Christian and I when I was pregnant. We lived on the same road, so we couldn’t be that far apart. Never mind that that road was 3,000 miles long…”

“Three thousand miles. Right.” Her face falls, so I reach across the seat and take her hand.

“It’s really not so bad. You won’t ever have to drive back and forth and the flight can actually be nice when you’ve got homework or something big to study for. I never had to do a single thing for my Political Journalism Writing class outside of the actual lectures because I did all my assignments and studying on the flight home to Seattle every weekend.”

“So, if I wanted to come home every weekend?”

“Then, we’ll make that happen.” I smile at her. “But you won’t. Trust me, Mia. You’re going to love it here.”

“Oh, no!” Luke exclaims from the driver’s seat. “Ana look at the meth billboard.”

I spin around and gaze up at the quickly approaching advertisement on the side of the interstate. The entire time I lived in Cambridge, that billboard had been plastered with the most disturbing images of broken down drug addicts as part of an anti-methamphetamine campaign. It was gross and drew your attention, so it became kind of a joke between Kate, Luke, and I. As though, had that billboard not been there, we would have all definitely become meth addicts, but instead, we were saved by the disturbing images. However, those images have disappeared, replaced with an advertisement for a local injury law firm.

“What did they do?” I gasp.

“I guess meth addiction has been cured.”

“It can’t be cured. It’s an epidemic, Luke!” I start digging through my purse for my phone, and once I find it, I scroll through my contacts, then press my finger onto Kate’s name.

“Hey, Annie. Did you make it to Boston okay?”

“I mean, the flight was fine, but I wouldn’t say that I’m okay.”

“Oh no, what’s wrong?”

“The meth billboard is gone.”

“What?!”

“I swear to god, Kate. It’s been replaced with an advertisement for a law firm. It’s. Not. There. Anymore.”

“Well, you know what that means? We gotta start doing meth.”

“I always feared this day would come.” We laugh together and, while I start shaking my head at the elaborate plans she immediately starts making for how we’re going to get our hands on a class one felony controlled substance, I start to feel a little sad.

“I wish you were here,” I tell her. “Cambridge isn’t the same without you.”

“And it never will be.” She laughs, then sighs. “I wish I was there too. It’s a little rude that Mia decided to go to college when I’m eight months pregnant.”

“Well, you know how the Greys are. Never thinking of other people’s schedules. Very inconsiderate.”

“I sure do, Anastasia Grey.”

I laugh again. “Well, once my god daughter is born, we need to come back. Maybe while I’m here, I’ll look into tickets for the football season next year. Our girls will be so cute as little Harvard fans.”

“Oh my god, they totally will be! We should… Shit. My contractor is calling me. I have to take this. Talk later?”

“Sure. I’ll probably send you a billion pictures of all our favorite things, anyway.”

“Do it! Love you, Ana.”

“You too, Katherine Grey.”

I hang up and turn back to Mia, but she’s glued to her window again as Luke signals to get over and Cambridge comes into view. The first blooms are starting to color the tops of the trees, but there isn’t yet enough foliage to conceal the red bricks that make up the first few building on campus. As we drive deeper into the city and as we begin to pass places I used to frequent, I feel an odd sense of Déjà vu. I thought coming back here would be a little sad, like I’d be reminded of all the things I don’t have in Seattle that I used to love and I’d realize how much I missed them. But there isn’t any longing to the memories that flood through me when we pass a familiar restaurant or shop, only familiarity. As if I never really left and this past year was just one really long weekend.

“That’s Christian’s favorite place to get breakfast,” I tell Mia when we drive by a small French bakery a few blocks away from my house. “I’m not as big into pastries as he is, but, during my last trimester, nothing could satisfy my cravings like their macarons. I’d get back from class and he’d have a box waiting for me.”

“Awh… you two are so gross.” She smiles as I reach out to nudge her, and then turns to stare back out at the passing store fronts. I point out mine and Kate’s favorite grocery store, just in case she doesn’t make it to Annenberg in time while she’s here, and the laundromat we used when there was no machines available at Grays. Like Christian, she immediately brushes me off by saying she intends to get laundry service, but she is interested in the places we used to get coffee or go shopping. Luke even takes us on a mini tour around the city so I can show her where everything she asks about is located. By the time we finally pull onto Maple Ave, it’s completely dark and most of the restaurants I’d considered taking her to for dinner are closing up for the night.

“We’ll order pizza,” I tell her after we pull into the driveway and start climbing out of the car. “You can make Elliot jealous and tell him we got Angelo’s.”

“Perfect, that’s literally my motivation for everything in life.” She gives me a devious kind of smile as she turns to follow Luke into the house, but I don’t go after either of them. Instead, after I’ve pulled the car seat holding my babbling baby from the car, I take a moment to glance over the house that was home to me for so many years.

Christian has hired lawn care and property maintenance services to keep the lawn mowed and the driveway and sidewalks clear of snow, but there’s still a sense of abandonment that clings to the place. Maybe it’s just because it’s the only dark house on the block, or maybe it’s because Kate’s car is missing from the driveway, but it’s the first place in Cambridge that’s felt truly different to me. And that feeling only intensifies when I finally do go inside.

The place is barren. The kitchen counters are no longer cluttered with appliances or the bowls of fruit I always left out to keep myself from fishing out the bag of potato chips from the cupboard. The dining room table is gone, the decorations have been removed from the walls, as has the rug from the floor, and the fridge is no longer covered in grocery lists, christmas cards from Mrs. Kavanagh, ultrasound photos, or the picture the little girl who lives down the street colored and proudly brought to us as a welcome home present before our Junior year.

The emptiness continues as I move into the living room where Mia is handing her bags over to Luke, only it’s actually a much more stark difference here than in the kitchen. The only furniture left is an old rocking chair that we got from a thrift store when we moved in, but that turned out to be extremely uncomfortable, and an ugly lamp Elliot just had to have from a garage sale we went to down the street. The pictures of Kate and I that used to scatter the walls are gone and the carpet has been completely torn up, leaving unfamiliar, bare, hardwood floors in its place. I glance down at the spot where I was standing, watching Carter Reed propose to Kate only just more than a year ago, and I immediately know the reason why.

“Earth to Ana,” Luke says, pulling me out of the memories of Calliope’s difficult labor, which I only now realize are the very last I have of this house. He’s reaching his hand out for me and waiting expectantly. “You want me to take your bag upstairs?”

“Uh, yeah… There are still two beds in your room from when Taylor was staying here, but Kate’s old room is empty. Will you drag a mattress in there for Mia?”

“Sure thing.”

“Thank you.” I smile, hand over my bag, and he disappears up the stairs two at a time, leaving me alone with Mia, who is giving the empty living room a thorough examination.

“Where’s all your stuff?” she asks.

“Well, Kate took most of it for the apartment she lived in all of three months after we moved back home. Some of it I have. This is what’s left.”

She frowns. “You could have at least left a TV.”

“Yeah, we didn’t have great foresight when we left, but this gives a chance for you and I to hang out. Catch up on life, you know.”

She hums in agreement, but not enthusiastically, and as I watch her move around the room, fiddling with the few things that were left behind and seemingly doing everything she can to stop from looking at me, I frown.

“Everything alright?”

She turns and raises an eyebrow at me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, we’re here. College. Harvard. Your first real step into the world. Are you nervous?”

She shakes her head, but very quickly loses the enthusiasm behind the gesture.

“It’s okay to be nervous, Meems,” I tell her. “I was, and I had Kate with me. You’re taking this step all by yourself.”

She swallows. “Yeah. All by myself.”

“Hey.” I cross the room and take her hand, then pull her to the rocking chair and settle down on the floor at her feet. “What’s going on?”

“I’m scared, Ana.”

“Of school?”

“Yeah… and no.” She sighs and looks down at the floor. “I’m scared of what being away from my family might turn me into. I’m… I’m not a very good person.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes. It is. I’m spoiled, and selfish, and I don’t make very good choices. I’ve done a lot to hurt the people that love me over past few years and what happened to you, to Christian… part of that was my fault.”

“No. It wasn’t.” I force myself to push down the fear and emotions that always bubble up whenever I’m forced to talk about the past and take her hand in mine. “What happened wasn’t because of Gresham, or because you worked for Elena. It happened because Andrew Lincoln was insane, and that’s not your fault.”

“But if I would have said something sooner… If I wouldn’t have been such a coward and told Christian what I knew right from the beginning, maybe he would have been able to find Linc sooner and then you would have never…” Her words choke off as she once again looks away from me, so I squeeze her fingers in mine.

“It wasn’t your fault, Mia. You were scared and you thought you were protecting your family. I get that, more than you know. There is nothing in this world I wouldn’t do to keep Christian and Calliope safe.” I take a hesitant breath. “Even if that means keeping a secret.”

“But–”

I cut her off. “We don’t know that it would have stopped anything had you told us sooner. Gresham didn’t lead us to Lincoln, and it was his death that brought him to our apartment that night. If you had said something sooner, my dad might not have been there, and that night might have gone very differently. So, there’s no point in feeling guilty. Believe me. I’ve spent months going over that night again and again in my head, trying to figure out how we could stopped him, and doesn’t do any good. You can’t change the past, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.”

“Is that why you won’t go to therapy?” I raise an eyebrow at her and she blanches slightly. “I’m sorry… I heard Christian telling mom and dad.”

I press my lips together and shake my head. “No. I don’t want to go to therapy because I don’t want to waste Flynn’s time, or mine. I’m just fine.”

“Are you though? I remember what it was like when you were living with us. When you locked yourself in Christian’s room and wouldn’t come out for weeks. I remember Christian sitting at the dining room table with dad, begging him to tell him what to do. I remember Kate sitting against the door, waiting for days for you to let her in, and you never did. I remember hearing you scream in the middle of the night… How are you just okay now?”

“I worked through it on my own,” I tell her, unwittingly glancing up to where I know Luke is overhead. “I found a way to feel safe again.”

“So, you’re really okay, then? This isn’t all just pretend?”

“No, Mia. I’m good. I swear.”

Relief washes across her face and she nods. “You’re amazing, Ana. I really wanna be more like you.”

“No. I think you’re pretty great just the way you are.”

“But… if I made all the terrible choices that I did while I was still living at home, with my parents telling me what to do all the time, what am I going to do when I’m 3,000 miles away from them? From you and Christian? All on my own. I don’t want to be the person I was anymore.”

“So don’t be. Look, the step that you’re about to take is scary, everyone feels the way you’re feeling right now, but you have something that a lot of people don’t have. Perspective. You get to leave home and go out into the world knowing who you want to be. Be that person, Mia. And don’t let anything or anyone stop you from being that person.”

She nods, and gives me a weak smile. “Okay.”

“I love you, Mia.”

“Yeah, me too. Thanks, Ana.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always here to talk, okay? About anything”

“I know.”

I squeeze her hand one last time and turn back to take my shockingly patient baby out of her car seat, and as I lie a blanket over the cold hard wood so I can set her down, Luke comes bounding down the stairs.

“Who’s ready for pizza?” he asks.

“Me,” I reply with a laugh, then pull out my phone and dial the number for Angelo’s while Mia disappears down the back hallway in search of a board game we can use to occupy ourselves for the rest of the night.

Next Chapter

Chapter 06

fifty-shades-of_-grey_-2015-unrated-1080p-bluray-6ch-shaanig-00550

“What about this one?” I ask, coming out of my closet and twirling in front front of my iPhone, which is propped up and resting on the dresser so Kate can see me over FaceTime. The steady tap of her fingers on the keyboard stops and she turns to look at me.

“Mmm, boring. I liked the one with the blush colored skinny trousers.”

“I’m not going to a garden party, Kate. I’m going to a job interview.”

She rolls her eyes. “An interview for a job that you’ve already been offered. I don’t know why you’re freaking out over this.”

“The person who thinks I’m a good fit isn’t the person who will decide whether or not I get the job. I have to impress the CEO. And, based on Christian’s overly optimistic attitude this morning, I’m guessing that’s going to be difficult.”

“Is it a he or a she?”

“She, I think.”

“Then go with the navy pants, the floral top, and the white blazer. Clean. Professional. Pretty.”

“Okay, let me put that back on…”

“Ana!” I turn back to my phone and find her staring impatiently back at me, her head resting in her hand. “You’re going to be fine. I love you, but I’ve got a meeting. I need to go.”

“But–”

“Call me when your interview is over and we’ll make plans to celebrate the job I know you’re going to get. Because you are going to get it, Ana.”

I smile. “Okay. I love you.”

“Love you too. Bye!” The screen goes black as she hangs up. I reach over to pick up my phone and toss it onto the bed while I start digging through the pile of clothes again for the outfit Kate suggested. Once I’m dressed and I’ve made sure my hair and makeup are perfect, I make my way down to my office where I’ve left a copy of my resume, the sales reports from SIP during my tenure, and the plan I’ve written up for how to get GSP off the ground again. But that’s not the only thing I find on my desk.

Sitting there, right in front of my keyboard, is a beautiful carry-all bag by Saint Laurent.  The rolled tote handles and silver buckles make it pretty and feminine, while the smooth black leather is chic and professional. There’s plenty of room inside for my laptop and files, and while I’m going  through the different pockets, I find a note from Christian.

 

I’d wish you luck, but you don’t need it. You truly are incredible.

I love you, Anastasia

-Christian

 

Ps. Don’t go today. Come work for me.

 

I smile, bring the note to my lips and softly kiss the indents from where his pen scribbled across the paper. Then I tuck the note into the pocket of my blazer so I can read it over and over again before my interview, and start filling the bag with everything I’ve prepared for this morning.

Feeling much more confident with Christian’s words of encouragement in my pocket, I head into the kitchen where Kensie is feeding Calliope in her high chair. Her cheeks are flushed red, there’s food all over her tray, and the nanny looks like she’s been through the ringer already. Without even hearing Calliope speak, I can tell she’s not having it this morning and my stomach clenches with anxiety at the thought of leaving her behind with the nanny while I go out to do something that would effectively turn her entire world upside down.

“Mmm,” Kensie says, scooping up a bite of pureed bananas with coconut milk and fresh ground cinnamon. She lifts the spoon and tilts it towards her mouth, but Callie squishes her lips together defiantly then reaches out and bats the spoon away.

“No.”

“Come on, Callie…” Kensie’s body deflates as she picks up the spoon. But, before she can try to feed her the mush again, Callie turns and sees me hovering in the doorway. Immediately, she starts to squirm and reach for me.

“Dada. Dada.”

“No, baby. You have to eat your breakfast.”

The anguish on her face is clear as she tries to stretch further towards me, and when I don’t move to pick her up, that anguish turns to anger, then tears. She screams and kicks, squirming and bouncing in her seat enough that I’m worried she may knock the high chair off balance. The red in her face deepens as she struggles to breathe through the cries trembling in her throat.

It’s too much. I break.

“Oh dear, Calliope,” I say, pulling her out of her chair and into my arms. She snuggles into me, burying her face into my blazer and soaking it in her tears.

“Ana, your jacket!”

“It’s fine.” I hold her tightly against me and bounce her until her tears die down and the only sound she makes come from her soft sniffles. With her tantrum past, Kensie tries to take her from me again, but Calliope’s fists tighten around the lapels of my jacket the moment the nanny touches her and her screams come full force again.

“I’ve gotta go bye-bye, baby,” I tell her, trying suppress the guilt pulsating throughout my entire body.

“No! No!” Her face crinkles with overdramatic agony once again, but I’ve already spent too much time deliberating over outfits this morning. I’m going to be late if I don’t leave right now and that’s not the first impression I want to make.

I kiss her on the head, and then shift so I can pass her off to Kensie. “I’m sorry, I have to leave. I need you to take her.”

“It’s okay, Mrs. Grey,” she says. “She’ll be fine once you’re gone.”

“I hope so. Call me if you need anything, I’ll have my cell.”

“I will. Good luck!”

“Thanks.” I lean over and kiss each of Calliope’s cheeks one last time and then brush my fingers through the thin, dark curls on top of her head. “Bye, bye, baby.”

She wails again as I turn to go, but before I make it out of the kitchen, she calls out for me and it stops me dead in my tracks.

“No, mama! No, mama!”

“What did she–” I breathe, turning around to face them again. “Did she just say mama?”

“Yeah,” Kensie says, smiling. “Yeah, I think she did. Callie, who is that?”

“No, mama.”

It hits me fast. I gasp and tears spring hot and wet to my eyes. My baby reaches out for me, her fists clenching the air over and over again as she calls out for me. Me. And I can’t go to her. If I give in now, and miss this interview, there won’t be another one.

“Mrs. Grey?” I turn and see Woods hovering in the entryway behind me. “The car’s out front. Are you ready?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.” With a deep breath, I turn back to face my baby and her quivering bottom lip, then quickly dash the tears from my cheeks and try to smile through the hurt I feel with every beat of my heart.  

“I love you, baby girl. Mama will see you tonight, okay?”

“No, mama.”

“Bye.” She starts to scream again as I leave the kitchen and each piercing cry weighs heavily on my resolve, even after I’m through the front door. The very first morning I’ve had to rely on Kensie to get her out of bed and ready for the day, and Calliope’s already in a stage five meltdown. If I get this job, this will be the new normal, and I’m not sure she’s ready for that. While Woods pulls down the drive and through our front gate, my heart feels as though it’s being pulled apart by the conflict my mind is battling over.

Maybe it isn’t a good idea to take a job that will keep me out of the house every day, the way Christian is. Or, maybe this is just further proof that I’ve made a mistake by insisting Calliope never leave my side these last few months. Other mothers work, this shouldn’t be this hard. But it is. It’s agony and it’s the first real struggle I’ve felt over the idea of starting a career.

 

The drive into downtown Seattle does nothing to alleviate my guilt over leaving Calliope, or to quell my nerves over the impending interview. Woods takes the same exit off the freeway we used to take before we moved, then turns north up 4th avenue in the same direction as Escala. This neighborhood is blanketed by the shadow of my old life, and looking at it now just makes me feel worse. That Thai restaurant on the corner was Christian’s and my favorite place to order in from when Gail was off on the weekends and I didn’t feel like cooking anything. The baby boutique we pass as we go through the light is the same store where I bought most of Calliope’s newborn clothes and the blanket that she still has to have with her at all times. Kate and I got our nails done at that salon before my wedding, I dropped my dad’s birthday and christmas packages off at that post office when he was still deployed, and Christian and I walked down that hill when we went to the market on what I now consider to be our first date, post break up. Driving up this street feels like walking into my childhood home decades after I’ve moved away. There’s a sweet kind of reminiscence, but it’s tainted with a pain that comes from the evidence that life here has gone on without me, while I’ve been unable to move on at all.

Relax, Anastasia. That’s what today is about. Moving on.

I glance up at the blue, reflective glass on the face of Escala as we pass, but the confusing medley of the best and worst memories of my life are very suddenly interrupted by the shrill, insistent ring of my phone. Shaking away the daze, I begin fumbling through the bag Christian gave me this morning, pull out my cell, and answer the call.

“Hey, Ros,” I say, surprised to see her name on my caller ID. “What’s going on?”

“Oh you know, just struggling to hang on to whatever last bit of sanity I have left before your husband really drives me over the edge. Same old, same old.”

“Oh, no. What’s he doing now?”

“It’s just this stupid R&D project. I’ve never seen Christian so obsessed with anything in my life. It’s like no matter how many experts, which he brings in himself mind you, tell him that what he’s trying to do physically can’t be done, he won’t be deterred. I’m telling you, Ana, he’s down the rabbit hole and if he doesn’t come out himself, soon, I’m going to put a hose down there.”

I laugh. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m not really crazy about this project myself, but I took vows, so I have to be on his side.”

“What about my side, Ana?” she asks, playful sarcasm dripping from each word.

“Well come up with a project you’re passionate about that Christian thinks is stupid and I’ll back you up. It probably won’t change anything, but the sentiment will be there all the same.”

“Thanks.” Her deadpan reply has us both laughing, but as Woods signals to pull out of traffic and park against the curb in front of GSP, I have to quickly reign it in.

“Hey, I’m about to go into a meeting, is there something you needed? You know, besides venting about how much my husband irritates you.”

“Yeah, I just wanted to talk to you about Kate’s baby shower. It’s looking like Christian and I have are going to have to go to Taiwan in the next couple weeks and if I can schedule it so that I won’t miss the shower, I will.”

“Oh.” My heart sinks as I think about spending days at home without Christian, and when I continue, that disappointment is apparent in my response. “It’s on the 10th.”

“Ugh… that might mean we need to go this weekend, then.”

This weekend?

“No, that’s perfect!” I say, a little too quickly. “I mean, Mia got into Harvard, so I’m taking her to Cambridge this weekend for orientation. We’ll be gone. So, it’s a good time for Christian to go away for business.” And he’ll be distracted.

“Oh. Well, I’ll see what he thinks then. If I can get even a few seconds with him, that is. He’s been barricaded in his office with R&D all morning.” She sighs. “Well, good luck with your meeting, Ana. Lunch sometime?”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Bye, Ros.”

“Bye!”

I hang up, then stew in the conflicting thoughts and feelings I’m left with after that conversation. Ros isn’t crazy about Christian’s take over the world plan, either. And that’s the second time I’ve heard someone say what he’s trying to do is impossible. It’s comforting in a way, because I think Christian’s quest for power is a bit antithetical to what he’s after. With power comes notoriety, and his desire for dominion will never be uncontested. The higher he rises, the harder he’ll fall, so to me it seems foolish to climb the ladder at all. But if he fails at this, if he believes that he let the one thing that could keep our family safe slip through his fingers… it’ll destroy him. I know that better than anyone. So, I can’t let that happen. Everything I do, every waking thought I have is about protecting him and Calliope, even if that means I have to protect him from himself.

I just don’t know yet what that means in this case.

“Mrs. Grey, we’re going to be late.”

I look up and make eye contact in the rear-view mirror. “Right. Thank you, Woods.”

He gets out of the car first to open an umbrella for me before I step out beneath the steady deluge of rain falling from the dark, ubiquitous cover of clouds over head. I try not to take that as a bad omen, it’s just February in Seattle.

We step into the building and then make our way to the elevators. Unlike the office I worked in at SIP, Greenwich doesn’t have it’s own building. The office space is located on the third floor of an old, multipurpose building that is cramped in a lot of ways, but that has a lot of character. Even the inside of the elevator is made of old wood paneling with exposed mechanical elements that creak and grind as we climb our way up the building.

When the doors open we’re released into a small reception area with a set of twin doors directly in front of us that bear the name Greenwich Small Press in brass letters. Past that, we walk into an open, industrial looking office with exposed beams and brick surrounding a dozen or so mismatched desks scattered around the hardwood floor.

“Hello,” the young woman behind the reception counter greets us. “Welcome to Greenwich Publishing. How can I help you today?”

I smile at her. “Yes, my name is Anastasia Grey, I’m here to see Mr. Scott Wall–”

“And there she is!” A booming voice interrupts me from across the room. I turn and see Mr. Wallace walking towards Woods and I with a broad smile stretched across his face. As he approaches, he reaches out his hand, which I take in a firm, confident handshake.

“Good morning, Mr. Wallace.”

“Please, Scott. If you’re going to take over the Seattle office, you and I are going to be working very closely together. We should be on a first name basis. Anastasia?”

“Ana,” I correct him, and his grin broadens before he turns to face the receptionist.

“We’ll be in my office, Penny, or… Ana’s office, I suppose.” He turns to wink at me. “Page me when Carmen gets here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carmen?” I ask.

“Our CEO. She’s running a little behind this morning, but she’s on her way. Come, I’ll give you a tour.”

Woods takes a seat at reception as Wallace walks me around the building. It’s not much, and since there aren’t many walls to the place a tour seems a little pointless. But he introduces me to some of the people I’d have under me if I were to be hired, shows me the breakroom, and a closet sized cubby he calls the copy room. I try to be gracious, despite my growing nerves, but by the time he takes me to the one and only office at the back of the building, the CEO still hasn’t arrived for my interview.

“And this will be yours,” Wallace says as he ushers me through the door. “Please, have a seat, Ana.”

“Thank you.” I step into the office, taking a quick glance around the space before I sit in the chair on the close side of the desk. It’s not as extravagant as Christian’s office at GEH, or even my own office back at home, but it’s not terrible. A few personal touches could make it feel really homey, and I bet the window on the back wall lets in the perfect amount of light on sunny spring days.

“Well,” Wallace begins, as he sits in the chair behind the desk. “How are you feeling? Nervous?”

“A bit,” I admit. “As weird as it sounds, this is my first real interview since I applied to college.”

“You’re going to be great, and I’ll be here the whole time. Carmen can be a little cold, but your record is undeniable.”

“Luckily, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in dealing with cold CEOs,” I say with a smile, and he laughs until he’s interrupted by a long drawn out beep.

“Mr. Wallace?” Penny’s disembodied voice says over the intercom on his desk phone. “Ms. Gallagher is here.”

“Excellent, send her back.” He gets out of his seat, buttoning his jacket as he stands as though the President of the United States is about to enter the room. Taking my cue, I hurriedly scramble to my feet and turn to face the door. Seconds later, a woman enters and I’m immediately struck by the commanding aura she carries with her. She’s beautiful, and younger than I expected, which shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as it is because of who I’m married to. Her skin is dark and flawless, as is her hair. Her nails are beautifully manicured, her makeup is impeccable, and her clothes are the perfect harmony of power and femininity. But just like my husband, it’s her eyes that I’m really drawn to.

The dynamic gray that looks down at me every day has always been my best insight to what’s going on in Christian’s mind. They can be cold and hard like steel when he’s angry or bright and fluid like molten iron when he’s in a good mood. The same seems to be true of Ms. Gallagher. Her eyes are an extremely deep brown, almost black, which I imagine could be warm and comforting when she laughs, or dark and intimidating when she doesn’t. Unfortunately, right now, it’s the latter.

“Mrs. Grey,” she says, reaching out to shake my hand. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Traffic here is ridiculous. But it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“A-again?” I stutter, taken off guard.

Her hand, still gripped in mine, stops moving and she subtly raises one of her well groomed eyebrows. “Yes, Mrs. Grey. We’ve met several times. In fact, I was invited to your wedding, or… your fake wedding, I suppose.”

My cheeks heat. “Right, I’m sorry. Christian was just trying to–”

“Waste everyone’s time? Yeah, he’s good at that. I certainly hope that’s not why you’re here today.”

“Uh.. no. Of course not.”

“Good. Then have a seat.” She moves around the desk to where Mr. Wallace is sitting and the second he meets her gaze, he quickly gets to his feet and offers her his chair.

“Thank you, Scott.” She gracefully lowers herself into the seat, so I do the same. As she settles in, Scott hovers uncomfortably behind her, as though he’s not sure if he should stand through the interview or find a different chair. Ultimately, he decides to take a few paces back and lean against the wall, but his I’m trying to look casual but am actually really uncomfortable stance is distracting.

“Alright,” Ms. Gallagher says at last. “Let’s get started, shall we? Tell me about yourself, Ana.”

“Well, I graduated summa cum laude from Harvard last year, and immediately after that I released my debut novel, Escape, which was a New York Times bestseller. I’ve done press, marketing, book tours, so I’m fully versed on the release process. And… let’s see, I’ve spent the last nine months writing, exploring new topics and genres. That’s been a truly rewarding experience, but I’ve realized through some serious introspection and discussions that I’ve had with some of my readers and other writers that what I really want is to get back into publishing, on the business side. Helping others is a true passion of mine and discovering new, talented authors and giving them the chance to realize the dream of seeing their work in print is what really inspires me.”

Back into publishing?”

“Yeah,” Wallace interrupts. “Here, I have her resume–”

“She’s right in front of me, Scott. Why would I read her past experience off a sheet of paper when she’s here, right now, in person? Do you think she’s incapable of expressing thoughts and ideas aloud? Have you brought me a candidate who is incapable of speech or conversation?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Good, then if you don’t mind, I’ll ask the questions I feel are necessary to determine whether or not Mrs. Grey here is a good candidate for this position.”

He blanches, like a child who’s just been scolded, then nods. “Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Thank you. Now, Mrs. Grey, you said you’ve had previous experience in publishing?”

“Yes, I interned for a local publishing house while I was still in school.”

“She’s being modest,” Wallace interjects again. “Anastasia oversaw the transition of SIP to Grey Publishing and much of the success GP has seen over the past two years can be attributed to the foundation she laid during her tenure there. She discovered and signed Boyce Fox herself. And what she did to turn the company around in such a short period of time is impressive when you consider that she was only a junior in college at the time.”

“Her husband’s company, you mean?” She turns to look at me and I can see the skepticism reflected in her eyes and in the lines around the curves of her mouth. “I assume your husband hired you for that internship?”

“Yes, but he wasn’t my husband then.”

“I see.” She crosses her legs and leans back, staring at me. It feels invasive, like her gaze can see right through me and as she does she doesn’t discover anything that gives her a great deal of confidence. “How’d you get to Harvard?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an impressive school and as far as I know Christian Grey isn’t on the admissions board, so how did you find yourself admitted to a top tier ivy? Are you a legacy?”

“No, I was actually the first person in my family to go to college.”

“Ah, an overachiever.”

“No.” My voice is curt as the almost dismissive kind of allegation in her tone triggers a defensive reaction. “I work hard for the things I care about. Harvard was a dream of mine from a very young age and I did everything I could to make that dream a reality. It took determination and sacrifice, from myself and from my family. To simply dismiss that as overachieving is quite frankly insulting.”

“Insulting? That seems dramatic.”

“Well, you’re not the first person I’ve met to insinuate that an ivy league education is meant for a specific subset of people, legacies for example, and that anyone not fortunate enough to be born into that small, elite group, is somehow stepping out of their rightful place.”

My words, sharp as they are, draw no reaction out of the woman across from me. She stares back at me with the same mask of cool impassivity I’ve seen Christian use over and over again, and her lack of response to the challenge I’ve not so subtly laid out for her weighs heavily on the atmosphere around us.

“Can’t deny it,” Wallace says with an awkward laugh. “She’s got fire.”

“Mmm,” Ms. Gallagher agrees with a half-hearted nod. She leans forward, folding her hands on the desk in front of her, and continues to probe me with her eyes. “Why are you here, Anastasia?”

There’s an accusation beneath the blatant question that takes me a moment to get past, so for several seconds I’m rendered speechless. And she stares, without remorse or regret, until I find my voice again.

“I’m sorry, have I done something to offend you?”

“Not at all, though I must admit I’m suspicious of your motives. There’s a publishing house just down the street that bears your own name, one you’ve already made your mark upon. So, my question is, why are you here?”

“Because Grey Publishing doesn’t need me, you do. This is what I’m good at, Mrs. Gallagher. I’ve seen the numbers and I’ve researched your authors. You haven’t had a release sell more than 2,500 copies in over eighteen months. And now that the Stormy Nights Saga is over, you have nothing left to make up for the dismal sales of the rest of your titles. Your publishing house is bleeding, I can help you fix it.”

“Help me? Is that what you call it?” In an instant, Ms. Gallagher’s restraint fades away and is replaced with fiery indignation. “I don’t subscribe to the Grey Method of acquisition, Anastasia. If your husband wants my publishing house, he’s going to have to try a whole lot harder than sending his wife to take it for him.”

I blink. “What?”

“We’re not for sale.”

“You think Christian sent me here as some kind of corporate sabotage?” I ask in disbelief. She lifts her eyebrows in a clear indication that she does, and I’m so floored by the audacity of her dismissal I feel like I could fall out of my chair. Anger flairs in my gut, intense enough that I’m unable to think past it enough to hold back the words that come out next.

“Perhaps the reason you don’t subscribe to the Grey Method, Ms. Gallagher, is because you don’t understand it. My husband wouldn’t waste my time trying to cripple a business he wanted, nor would he exhaust the resources it would take GEH to build it back up again. If he wanted your company, all he’d have to do is wait you out because what you’re doing right now is making it real easy for him.”

“I’m aware of our situation, and I assure you I don’t need a Grey to resolve my company’s problems for me.”

“Then good luck, Ms. Gallagher. I truly hope you find someone to run this office who is able to look past a petty rivalry and do what’s necessary to right this ship. Anything else would be a serious injustice to the authors who have put their faith in you and trusted you with their lives’ work.”

I stand up and snatch my briefcase off the floor, but before I turn to leave, I lean over the desk and press my finger into the wood right in front of her. “And for the record, my last name might be Grey now, but I’m still Anastasia Steele, and if you don’t understand what that means, then you’ve got a lot to learn about the Seattle publishing industry.”

The rage allows me to maintain my confidence all the way through the door. I snap at Woods as I storm through the lobby and push through the front doors towards the SUV. Once I’m inside though, my adrenaline rush crashes and tears spring to my eyes.

“Is everything alright, Mrs. Grey?” Woods asks.

I shake my head. “God, I’m so stupid. I don’t know why I ever thought…” My words cut off as my throat starts to tighten and I have to swallow to clear away the choking sobs before I can speak again. “Will you just take me to GEH, please?”

“Right away, ma’am.” He turns to face forward in his seat again, starts the car, and slowly pulls out into traffic. I let my head fall back into the headrest and close my eyes, chastising myself over and over again for letting myself believe once again that my experience and talent would be able to outweigh my last name. But just like with Escape, my connection to Christian is once again all people see in me. The thought is depressing and as we turn up Virginia St. towards GEH, I once again glance up at Escala and feel the remnants of all the darkness it represents to me now wash down upon me like the raindrops currently running in steady streams across the window.

 

We drive for less than five minutes before we pull into the garage below GEH. Just like the rest of Christian’s shiny new building, the garage is huge and over the top. The smooth concrete drive winds its way five stories below ground level, but because I’m in a car with top security clearance we’re waived through the gate on the top floor and directed to a space in between Christian’s brand new Ferrari and Ros’ much more sensible Audi sedan. From there, it’s a short trip to the elevator and then a long ride up to the 29th floor.

The doors open to a huge, open lobby area, with shiny white floors and walls of either flat white or a pale silver stone. The dark gray marble desk, where Andrea and Olivia are sitting, stands stark and imposing in front of frosted glass that has the familiar GREY logo etched into it.

I grip the straps of my bag over my shoulder more tightly as I step into the reception area, and both Andrea and Olivia look up and smile at me as I approach.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Grey,” Olivia greets me.

“Hello, Olivia. Andrea. Is he in his office?”

“Actually, he’s in a…” Andrea pauses, looking conflicted for a moment, then shakes her head. “Nevermind, I forgot for a second who I was talking to. Yes, he’s in his office. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you, Andrea. I won’t be long.” I continue forward, past the expensive custom art Christian had commissioned by Seattle’s most prominent artists, and the glass and steel doors that lead into the boardroom where Christian holds meetings with his executive team. Around the corner, I pass Taylor’s office, then Ros’, until eventually I reach the double doors that lead into Christian’s office, the only dark fixture on this entire floor.

I don’t knock before I go in and once the door closes behind me, several pairs of eyes look up at me with annoyance. But the irritation in the gray set behind the imposing desk at the center of the room vanishes almost instantly.

“Anastasia?”

“Hi.” Though my voice is weak, the lingering tremble from the tears I only just managed to stop before getting into the elevator is obvious, at least to Christian. His face melts with worry and then his eyes quickly dart to the men surrounding his desk.

“Leave us, please.”

“Mr. Grey,” Welch argues, but Christian’s eyes flash in warning as he turns to the head of his R&D department.

“I said leave us.”

His shoulders rise and fall as he takes a deep breath, but he nods and gathers the papers spread out across the desk in front of him. One by one the men file past me, though I don’t make eye contact with any of them. Woods is the last to leave and once I hear the door close behind me, my bottom lip begins to tremble again.

“Hey,” Christian says, turning in his chair, but I hurry forward before he can get up and then crawl into his lap. “What’s wrong, baby?”

“It was awful. She was rude, and dismissive, and she thinks the only reason I was there was so I could infiltrate GSP and take it down from the inside so that you could buy the pieces for cheap.”

“Well, that’s…  actually, that’s not a bad idea.”

“Christian!”

He smiles. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you better. The Gallagher Corporation is GEH’s biggest competitor in the green tech industry and Carmen Gallagher and I have gone toe to toe several times over new acquisitions. She hates me, and there was no way you were going to overcome that.”

“So that’s why you sent me? You knew I didn’t have a real chance at GSP and once she turned me away, I’d have to come work for you?”

“I’m not a gambling man, Anastasia. I don’t make a bet unless I know I’m going to win.”  

“Remind me to have that stitched on a sampler.”

He laughs and wraps his arms around me more tightly. At first, I almost want to push him away. He set me up. In true Christian form, he’s laid out the path he wants for me to follow and then blindly sent me down it. If he knew GSP was out of the picture, he should have told me that. But that would probably have made me simply look into other publishing houses in the area, and this way, he has a promise I’ll come work for him.

It’s clever. Manipulative, but clever. But try as I do to be irritated with him, it’s impossible. While he holds me, a lot of the hurt and embarrassment I felt immediately after leaving GSP slowly begins to wash away. I breathe in his scent and feel his lips press against my forehead, and it’s calming. His embrace sends a  familiar kind of comfort through my entire body, until it’s impossible for me to care about the combative interview I just endured, and as the tension relaxes out of my muscles, I snuggle into his chest and hum with content.

He loves me. That’s why he didn’t warn me about Carmen Gallagher. He loves me and he wants me around, even at work.

“Maybe you’re right, as usual,” I sigh. “Maybe Grey Publishing would be better for me. I won’t have anything to prove or any egos to fight. I mean, there’s nothing for me to change or rebuild. I won’t be leading a miraculous turn around or carving out my own path and proving I can make it in this industry without the help of my last name, but I might be okay with just running the GP fiction department. Maybe I’ve already proved what I have to prove. Maybe it’s time for me to show that I’m just as adept at maintaining the status quo as I am at building something new.”

“There’s still a lot you can do, Ana, and I know that you’re going to be great. Carmen Gallagher might not know what you bring to the table, but I do. Like I said, I never make a bet that I don’t know I can win, and I’ll always bet on you.”

I pivot so I can look up into his eyes, and the sincerity I see reflected there makes smile. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

“Should I start a list?”

“Yes.” My eyes glimmer with mirth and he smiles, then leans down and kisses the tip of my nose. Between each new reason he gives me, he kisses a different part of my face.

“You’re smart. Funny. Kind. Beautiful. Sexy. Loving. Talented. Warm. And you make beautiful babies.”

“Mmm.” I lean up and nuzzle the tip of my nose against his, which soon melts into a soft, deep kiss. “Speaking of babies…” I say when I finally pull away from his lips. “Calliope said ‘mama’ this morning.”

“She did?”

“Mhm, but only so she could scream at me for leaving her. I’m starting to think its not a good idea to have her home all day, every day, around the same four people. She’s really attached to you and me, and if we’re both going to be working, it might not be such a bad idea to help her make some friends. Make her a little less dependent.”

“You mean… you’re going to let me bring her into daycare?”

I nod. “She’ll be closer to us here than she would be at home, and if we send Kensie with her, she’ll still have one on one attention. Besides, Kate and I met at school when we were really young, maybe letting her socialize with some other kids will give her the chance to form friendships that could last a lifetime.”

“Even if those other kids have colds and germs?”

I laugh. “Even if they have germs.”

“Then I’ll discuss it when Mackensie tonight. And I’ll call Elizabeth to let her know you’ll be starting next week.”

“Okay.”

“Welcome aboard, Mrs. Grey. It’ll be a pleasure working with you.”

“Oh I don’t know about that,” I say, rolling my eyes. “From nine to five, I’m going to be one of your employees, Mr. Grey. Which means you’re going to have to learn to control yourself.” I sit up and lean into him so that my lips are pressed right against his ear. “No matter how many times I forget to wear panties to work.”

His breath hisses between his teeth and his hands twist into the hair at the back of my head so he can tilt my face towards his lips, but as he leans down and covers my body with his, he gets a page from Andrea.

“Mr. Grey, should I dismiss the R&D team or do you intend to continue your meeting?”

“I was just leaving, Andrea,” I answer for him, then turn and give Christian a quick peck on the lips. “We can pick up from here once you get home.”

“I’ll look forward to it, Mrs. Grey.”

After one last kiss, I climb out of his lap and straighten my clothes and make for the door. My cheeks flush slightly as I face the stares of Christian’s R&D team coming back up the hallway, but Andrea smiles as I make my way out of reception, so I smile back and wave while we wait for the elevator.

“Get in touch with Taylor,” I say to Woods as we step inside and press the button for the garage. “We’ll be starting with Grey Publishing next week and you’ll need an office close to mine.”

“Yes, ma’am. How soon after we get back from Cambridge?”

I frown. “Yeah, about Cambridge…”

He turns to look at me and raises an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“I need you to do me a favor.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 05

dakota-johnson

There’s a certain degree of humility I feel pulling into the parking lot for the conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Alliance Saturday morning. The events I’m used to attending with Christian are all black tie and held in the city’s grandest ballrooms, with press and a cocktail hour. Today, I’m at the DoubleTree Inn in SeaTac, not even Seattle proper, and the woman in the headset across the parking lot, who is directing the crew carrying chairs and tables into the venue, is dressed in ripped skinny jeans and a long, tartan flannel. There’s no one to take my picture and I don’t have a publicist trying to direct the right kind of questions towards me, the way I do whenever I’m with my husband. It’s small, more down to earth. I’m only just more than nobody, and it’s…

I take a breath.

It’s a good way to start out the day.

“Mrs. Grey?” Woods stands a few paces away, looking at me like he can’t figure out why I’m not in more of a rush to get out of the light drizzle of rain. “I think we’re supposed to go this way.”

“Oh, right.” I smile and then hurry to his side, ducking beneath the umbrella he’s opened and trying not to step in any puddles deep enough to wet the parts of my feet left exposed by my heels. The lobby inside the hotel is busy, and it takes me a moment to find where I’m supposed to check in. Once I do though, the woman sitting behind the cheap folding table perks up and smiles warmly at me.

“Anastasia Steele, welcome.”

“Grey,” I correct her automatically, but then shake my head as I remember that my book was published under my maiden name, as is all the promotional material here today. “Sorry, habit.”

“Don’t apologize, Mrs. Grey. We’re very happy to have you here. I have a packet for you with today’s schedule and some information about the different publishers and authors here today. Other than that, you’re free to mix and mingle or head upstairs, if you prefer. Your publicist is already inside setting up a table for your signing this morning.”

“Thank you,” I say, taking the glossy packet she hands me, and with one last smile, I turn and walk with Woods into the ballroom.

There are all kinds of different booths being set up. I can see signs for several local publishing houses, who are here to give unrepresented authors three minutes to pitch their novels for publication. There’s an editing company advertising their services, a graphic designer who is here to offer tips on cover art, and a man I’ve never heard of scheduled to give a lecture on self-publishing dos and don’ts.

“Excuse me, uh… ma’am? Could you grab that for me?”

I turn and see a woman on a ladder, looking at me bashfully and pointing to a banner that she appears to have dropped.

“Oh. Of course.” She smiles as I hurry over to her, pick up the banner, and then reach as high as I can up on my tip-toes until her fingers close around the vinyl. “Got it?”

“Yeah,” she says, her voice strained as she pivots on the ladder and reaches high above her head to secure the banner to the wall. I wait, making sure she doesn’t drop it again, and once she pulls her hands away, she frowns. “Does that look straight?”

“It needs to go down a little on the right.” I look around the space and see an extra ladder, so I hold up a finger towards her and make my way over to it. “Here, hold on.”

“Mrs. Grey!” Woods exclaims when I pull the second ladder away from the wall. I shoot a warning look in his direction.

“I’m fine, Woods.”

After setting up the ladder, I kick off my heels and quickly climb to the top, taking hold of the banner on my side and moving it up and down the wall until Woods tells us it’s even and we tack it into the drywall. The girl across from me breathes a sigh of relief and starts the climb back to the ground.

“Thank you, so much,” she says. “I was supposed to have help today but, surprise, surprise, I’m here alone. That was really cool of you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I reply dismissively. Again, she smiles and holds out her hand.

“I’m Jennelle.”

I take her hand and grip it firmly. “Ana.”

“Well thank you again, Ana. Seriously, I– Oh my god, now he shows up.” She rolls her eyes and then nudges me with her elbow. “Once all the heavy lifting is done, am I right? Excuse me.” She rolls her eyes and shouts at someone behind me. “Hey, Brad! Thanks for all the help, you jackass.”

I laugh as she rushes past me for the clueless looking guy coming in the back entrance with the loading crews, and feel an odd sense of comfort as I return to Woods’ side. That girl had no idea who I was and that was the first perfectly normal human interaction I’ve had since… fuck, I don’t even know. Maybe this isn’t just about proving something to Christian. Maybe I really am ready for this conference. Maybe this is exactly what I need.

“Ana!” I turn in the direction I hear my name being called and see Lydia waving at me. Feeling much more confident about today than I did a few minutes ago, I stand tall, nod in her direction, and make my way over to her. “I’m glad you’re here, I was starting to worry.”

“Sorry, I got distracted.” She nods and then steps to the side so she can gesture to the station she’s set up for my signing.

“Well, what do you think?”

There’s another banner, bigger than the one I just helped hang, behind the table which has the picture of me from the back of my dust jacket on it. To the side is a long line of velvet ropes that suggest Lydia thinks there is going to be a significant line of people waiting to meet with me, as does the obscenely large pile of books stacked on top of the table and the boxes filled with more copies on the floor behind it.

“This is… a lot of my face, Lydia.”

“Such a good picture,” she says, ignoring the disapproval in my tone. “Calm, reserved, introspective. I love it. Do we need to go over some talking points in case you get stuck with some of your fans?”

I raise an eyebrow at her. “I think I can handle conversation.”

“I know, I just want to be as helpful and supportive as I can be. And, just so you know, the PNWA council has said they will carve out some time for you to give a speech if you wanted to… oh, I don’t know, take this perfect opportunity to give everyone a sample reading from your new book.”

“Lydia…”

“Alright, alright, you know I had to try. So, if you’re not going to give me a reason to track down whoever is in charge, I think we’d better get you up to your room.”

“My room?”

“Well, yeah. We can’t just have you sitting out in the open, it’ll ruin the excitement of having you come out to greet everyone. Besides, you’ll be much more comfortable upstairs. Come with me.”

Her hair fans out spectacularly as she turns on her heel and starts walking out of the ballroom. As I begin to follow her, I raise my fingers to my lips to hide my smile. Lydia can drive me a little nuts sometimes, but, weirdly, every now and then she reminds me so much of Kate that I think I want to hug her. Maybe Kate missed her calling as a literary agent, or any agent really, except that she’s taken to bossing around a room full of scandal hungry journalists itching to be the next Woodworth and Bernstein like a bird to flight. If only I could get Lydia to read me as well as my best friend, I think she and I might be able to take over the world.

I follow her into the elevator and up to the fourth floor where she leads me into a small, empty room. There are some catering trays laid out and a few bottles of cold water, but other than that there’s not much to keep me occupied.

“Alright, is there anything I can get you before I go back downstairs? Ice? Tea? A written statement about when you’ll be releasing your next book?”

“Lydia…”

She smiles. “One day, Ana. I’m gonna break you.”

“Not if I fire you first.”

“You see, that’s the kind of wit that’s going to make your next work an international best seller. You’re funny, kid. Real funny. Now, if there’s nothing else I can get you, I’m going to go eavesdrop on some pitches downstairs. See if there’s someone I can scalp before the publishing houses realize what they’re hearing. You have my number if you need something.”

I shake my head with exasperation. “Have fun, Lydia.”

“You know I will.” She squeezes my hand and winks as she turns for the door.

Once she’s gone, Woods and I talk for awhile and play a few games of cards with a spare deck he keeps in his jacket. The bright side is that it gives me the chance to call Christian and get regular updates on his day alone with Calliope, the bad side is that it gives me a lot of time to think about the number of people I can see flowing into the hotel from the parking lot. I get a picture in my mind of myself sitting at the table Lydia set up in the ballroom, scanning the hundreds of unfamiliar faces, and like a flash from a nightmare, there’s Linc’s face. The vision makes me shudder.

“Mrs. Grey? Are you alright?”

I jump slightly as Wood’s interrupts my thoughts, but quickly recover and smile.

“Sorry. Daydreaming.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Your deal or mine?”

 

We wait for a total of two hours before Lydia finally comes back to get me. There’s a pad of paper in her hand with a few names and phone numbers scribbled across it and she’s beaming like a kid on Christmas morning, so I assume she’s found a few unsigned authors downstairs who have peaked her interest.

“Like fish in a barrel?” I ask, smirking at her, but she shakes her head.

“More like a needle in a haystack. But I brought a magnet.” Her eyes twinkle with excitement, but it fades quickly as she starts ushering me out of the room.

“Let’s go, let’s go. We’re on a schedule here and your turnout was higher than I expected.”

“Higher?”

She smiles. “You’re very well loved in this city, Anastasia. Now, go, go, go!”

I start a little then hurry through the door for the elevator. As we ride back down to the lobby, my stomach is suddenly filled with butterflies. This is my first big event since it happened. My first time getting up in front of people. My first chance to either prove that I’m moving on or fall spectacularly without Christian here to pick me up again.

The doors open and Woods moves closer, following so closely behind me, he may as well be my shadow. I force myself to take several deep breaths, but by the time we make it to the entrance of the ballroom, I nearly chicken out.

“Ready?” Lydia asks.

“Uh…”

“Don’t be nervous, Ana. You’re going to be great. Just keep the conversations short and tell me if you need a new pen before it runs out of ink.”

I’m almost able to give her one full nod before she turns and opens the door, and as I step into the ballroom, I feel my stomach clench like I’ve taken a sudden, dramatic drop. Turns out that the velvet ropes I thought were excessive earlier, weren’t enough. The line of people waiting for my signing must be composed of at least three hundred people, not the hundred Lydia told me to expect, and even with the artful way the conference staff have managed to wind the line back and forth, the gigantic room still feels claustrophobic.

“Oh my god, there she is!” someone shouts, and suddenly the room erupts in screams. I flinch, but manage to recover with a smile, then wave at the crowd as I’m lead to the table stacked with books. Flashes explode from a dozen different places in the crowd in front of me, so I do my best to ignore them and keep up a pleasant excited smile for the first person who walks up to greet me.

It’s hard at first, having one quick, shallow conversation after another. There isn’t enough time to really talk to anyone but I don’t want to make this experience a waste of their money. Especially when so many of them are so kind and well wishing. The sentiment helps with the nerves, and helps me calm down and enjoy meeting people. Warmth floods through me as I hear again and again how much people really did love Escape, and after struggling to connect with one girl who spent the entire time we talked shaking and stuttering, I fear my face might be flushed bright red with a grateful kind of embarrassment.

“Hello,” I say, greeting the next young woman who comes forward.  She starts to shake.

“Oh my god, you’re Anastasia Steele.”

“Yes, I am. And you are?”

“Hailey. Hailey Lewis. Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m meeting you. I can’t tell you…” She pauses, almost like she’s suddenly too choked up to speak. “I’m sorry, I really don’t want to be a spaz… It’s just, last year was really hard for me and then I saw you on the Today show talking about how writing this book helped you, so I decided to read it. It was like you were speaking right to me through the pages and I just had this epiphany, you know? I needed a way to get out what I was feeling, even if that meant finding an outlet that had nothing to do with what happened. So I wrote a book, just like you, and it’s healed me in a way I never thought I could be healed. You’re the one who made me do that. You’re the one who gave me my life back. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Escape, Miss Steele.”

“Ana,” I reply with a warm smile, and she immediately goes red.

“Ana.” Her voice shakes. “I’m on a first name basis with Anastasia Steele. Oh my god. I’m sorry, but I’m freaking out a little bit. You’re my idol. Really.”

“Well, thank you so much. I only published Escape because I hoped that it would touch someone just like you, so thank you for sharing your story with me. You don’t know how much it really means to me.”

“Of course.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Yeah. I mean, not really. I haven’t published anything, just the book I wrote after… uh.” She stammers again and shakes her head, I think because she doesn’t want to get into the “whys” of what she wrote. I get that, more than she probably knows, so I stop her before she feels like she has to explain more than she wants to.

“I’d love to read it.”

Her eyes grow wide. “Really? Y-you would read my work?”

“Of course I would. Do you have something I could write on?”

“Yes!” She fumbles with her bag in her haste to get inside of it, but eventually manages to remove a spiral bound notebook, from which she tears a single page. I take it and begin to write.

“This is the address for my agent’s office. If you send her a copy of your manuscript, she’ll make sure it gets to me. Just leave her an email or an address I can use to send you feedback.”

I hold out the paper for her, and when she reaches out for it, her hands shake. Her expression has gone completely blank and the way she looks at the paper almost makes me wonder if she’s having some kind of episode.

“Hailey?”

“I’m sorry,” she says, blinking like she’s coming out of a trance. “I’m just trying to convince myself that this isn’t a dream.”

I laugh again. “I promise you, it isn’t.”

Picking up my pen again, I slide one of the copies of Escape off the top of the stack next to me and write a quick, personal message on the inside of the front cover along with my signature, then hand it to her.

“Don’t forget to send your manuscript. I’ll be waiting anxiously.”

“I won’t. Thank you. Thank you so much, Miss– Ana.”

“Bye, Hailey.”

She smiles as she walks away and I’m overcome with the most amazing feeling as I turn to greet the next person in line. Seeing my name in the New York Times was great and watching the number of copies sold grow higher and higher, even months later, felt really good, but this… This has finally given me what I needed from this whole experience. I’ve helped someone. I’ve changed someone. I’m responsible for someone’s passion. That fills me with so much more pride than book sales ever could.

And it’s not even just one person. For hours I hear story after story from people who have been moved by my novel. Some who have found strength, some who have found forgiveness. My goal was to give people hope, but today has shown me that I have been able to do so much more than that and it is a truly, profoundly humbling experience. It’s everything, and as my time draws to a close and the line of people waiting diminishes, I feel like new life has been breathed into me.

“Phenomenal,” Lydia says after the last person in line leaves with a signed copy. “I expected to sell maybe a hundred-fifty copies today, you moved over three hundred. I will never stop being amazed by you, Anastasia.”

“Nor will I,” a voice says behind her. We both turn and I instantly recognize the man approaching us from the restaurant Luke and I went to earlier in the week.

“Mr. Wallace,” I say, surprised. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“This is why I’m here, Anastasia. GSP is here trying to scout some new talent, and since we’ve lost the head of our Seattle division, they brought me in from New York.”

“Oh, well, did you find what you were looking for?”

“I think there’s some good prospects. And, strangely, I think that might have something to do with you. I met with a few authors right after they spoke with you and their confidence was remarkable. Really impressionable. You bring out the best in people, Anastasia. I think you might have a real talent for this line of work. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a calling.”

“Oh, I don’t know…”

“I do. It’s my job to know.” He smiles, then reaches into his jacket to pull out a pen and another business card, which he writes on as he starts to speak again. “Look, I know you said that you’re just focusing on writing, but my boss is in town this week and I really do need to find someone to fill the position we have open with a candidate who will impress her. I’m going to schedule an interview with you for Wednesday at eleven o’clock. Come or don’t come, that’s up to you, but between us, I think you miss it. And I think you know you’d do great things and make a lot of dreams come true if you took this job. What more could you want?”

He holds the card out for me and I can see a time and address scribbled across it. For a few drawn out seconds, I hesitate, telling myself that this isn’t what I want, but his words resonate with me. The way I felt after speaking with Hailey and seeing how excited she got when I offered to read her work, that could be every day for me. And really, he’s right. What more could I want?”

I take the card and smile up at him, but before I have the chance to thank him I hear my name being called from across the room.

“Annie! Sweetheart, she’s right over here. Annie!”

I turn and deflate a little as I see Kim waving animatedly at me, but that small sense of disappointment quickly vanishes when I see my dad barrelling up behind her.

“There she is!” He comes around the table and pulls me up into a giant, lung crushing hug that takes me several seconds to worm out of. When he does let me go, his face glows with pride until he turns to see Mr. Wallace standing on the other side of the table. “Oh, I’m sorry. Are we interrupting?”

“Not at all,” Mr. Wallace says, extending his hand across the table. “Scott Wallace, I’m with Greenwich Publishing.”

“Raymond Steele,” my dad replies, glancing over at me awkwardly. “I’m with… her.”

“This is my father,” I tell him, and Mr. Wallace’s grin broadens.

“Well, congratulations, sir. Your daughter is really something. I bet you’re very proud.”

“Very.” Mr. Wallace shakes my dad’s hand again, then turns to smile at me.

“I hope to see you later in the week, Anastasia.”

“Maybe,” I agree with a nod. He turns to leave and as I face my father again, he raises an eyebrow at me.

“What was that?”

“Oh, he wants me to come work at his publishing house. What are you doing here?”

“Grace invited us to Mia’s party tonight and Christian said you had a signing today. We thought we’d come down here and check it out, see you in action. This is really something, kiddo. You’ve got quite the fanbase.”

“Yeah, it was good. I had fun today.”

“Good?” Kim says, doubtfully. “We saw that line of people, Annie. This is amazing. We are so proud of you, sweetheart.”

Don’t we me.

I bite my tongue and turn to smile at my father. “Do you want to look around a little, or are you ready to head home?”

“Home, I think. I gotta go spoil my grandbaby before Grace gets to her.”

“Okay. I just have to touch base with Lydia and then I’m out of here. Meet you at home?”

“Sure thing, kiddo.” He hugs me again, telling me once more how proud he is before he leaves. I stand there smiling as I watch him go, until he’s nearly at the door and I see him put his arm around Kim, pull her into him, and kiss her hard on the cheek. It makes my muscles tighten uncomfortably and a bitter taste creeps into my mouth.

I think it’s time to have Luke look into this woman.

 

Unfortunately, I’m not released from the conference as quickly as I’d hoped. As people start filtering out, I’m pulled into a separate room where I’m interviewed about the event for the PNWA newsletter. Then I have to stand around and wait for each of the directors to come in and takes pictures with me, first individually, then as a group. The only good thing is being forced to pose in front of the blank canvas backdrop again and again reminds me that I also should have at least one picture for my PixC account. At least it’ll make Jacquiline happy.

When I finally do get back home, it’s not only my father’s car in the driveway. The whole family has already arrived, which means I’m late for Mia’s birthday. I rush into the house as quickly as possible, thinking I’ll find everyone already seated for dinner, but instead most everyone is in the living room. I come around the corner just in time to see Kate reach into a bowl, read what’s written across the paper slip she pulls out, and wave her arms around with wild excitement.

“Okay it’s a person, and they’re very specific about color.”

“Prince!” Elliot yells, but Kate shakes her head.

“No, think 90s television. Fighting, girl power,…”

“Xena, Warrior Princess?”

“No. Super powers.”

“Wonder Woman?”

“No. Elliot, focus. Early 90s television, specific colors, fighting monsters, morphing, pterodactyl…

“Uh…”

“Time!” Mia shouts, springing up off the couch and jumping up and down with her friend Tibby. They hug and start doing a celebratory dance while they sing, “We are in the lead,” over and over again.

“What was it?” Elliot asks, disappointed.

“The Pink Power Ranger,” I say, and the whole family turns to look at me.

“Yes! Thank you, Ana. Come be on my team.” She turns and glares at her husband. “We’re going to need you.”

I laugh as Elliot rolls his eyes, but when I step into the living room, I’m distracted from Kate by the sounds of my daughter struggling in my father’s arms.

“Dada, dada,” she cries, reaching out towards me.

“No, baby. That’s mama,” my dad corrects her, but she continues to say ‘dada’ over and over again until I pull her into my arms.

“You really aren’t going to say it, huh?” I ask, narrowing my eyes at her, and she reaches forward to grab my hair.

“No.”

Everyone around us laughs, but as I turn to give Christian an annoyed look, I realize he isn’t here.

“Where’s Christian?”

“In his office,” Carrick says. “He got a call from Ros, I think.”

“Oh. Well, then I better go check on him.”

“Tell him to hurry back,” Mia says. “It’s our turn again after the parents.”

“I will. And, hey… Happy Birthday, Mia.”

She beams at me. “Thanks.”

I adjust Calliope on my hip as Kim reaches into the bowl and Carrick, Grace, and my father turn their attention to her, then leave to go pull Christian out of whatever work Ros has ensnared him in. When I open his office door, I find him on the phone, absorbed enough that he doesn’t even look up when I enter.

“I know you’re not as invested in this project as I am, Ros, so I’m not going to take your lack of faith here personally, but I’m not giving up.” He pauses, and as Ros responds to him, he starts shaking his head. “Funding has never been an issue before, and it isn’t an issue now. I’ll take care of it. I said I’ll take care of it.” He slams the phone down on the receiver and sighs as he drops his head into his hands. I watch him run his fingers through his hair a few times, and when he finally looks up at me, I cross the room and settle down on the desk in front of him.

“Something wrong?”

He shakes his head. “Nothing I can’t handle. How was your signing?”

“It was good.” He smiles and leans forward to kiss me, but Calliope grabs his lips in her fist before he even gets close.

“Dada.”

He laughs, then opens his mouth to nibble on her fingers, which makes her shriek and start to giggle.

“Alright you two,” I say, grinning. “It’s Aunt Mia’s birthday and we need to go help her celebrate. Don’t we, Munchkin?”

“No.”

Both Christian and I laugh again, but despite her discordant response, Christian takes her out of my hold so I can hop off the desk, and we carry her back out to the living room where our family is finally getting ready for dinner.

With Gail off on weekends and me spending the whole day out of the house, it was up to Christian to have Mia’s birthday dinner prepared, which means it’s been catered. We have an Italian feast laid out before us, and as we pass pastas, bread, and a gooey, cheese covered chicken around, Grace finally concedes and lets Mia open her gifts. From Kate and Elliot, she opens a designer duffle bag filled with custom made leotards and pointe shoes. Carrick and Grace give her some heirloom jewelry from Grandma Trevelyan that they’ve held for her since she was born, and my dad gives her the same bag full of lottery tickets he gave me when I turned eighteen.

“Oh my god, this is amazing,” Mia says happily, pulling out a long ribbon of scratchers. “I’m going to be a millionaire.”

My dad laughs and I turn a smug look on Christian.

“Alright, my turn,” he says, then gets up and disappears into the formal sitting room off to the side of the dining room. When he returns, he’s holding a beautifully wrapped square box that is a mystery to both me and Mia.”

“Thank you, Christian and Ana!” Mia chirps excitedly as she starts untying the ribbon. I shake my head.

“This is all Christian.”

She smiles at her brother, then lifts the lid. But when she peaks inside, she frowns.

“What is it?”

“Well read it, Miss Harvard.”

She scrunches her face at him, then reaches into the box and pulls out an envelope. When she takes out the paper inside, her eyes widen.

“Plane ticket vouchers to Spain?”

“Keep going…”

Mia raises an eyebrow, then reaches back into the box for another envelope. It’s a hotel reservation in Barcelona, followed by rail passes, ferry vouchers, and more plane tickets to get them to France, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, The UK, and Ireland. He’s planned a full European tour over the course of the entire summer, and paid for everything to get her around. The last envelope she opens, labeled “Travel Money”, contains over $15,000 in cash.

“Oh my god, you’re sending me to Europe?” Mia asks, once everything she’s opened finally sets in.

“You and four of your friends, female friends. All summer. Ana and I might even join you for part of the trip.”

“Holy mother of…” She smiles and turns to her parents. “I can go, right Mom?”

“All summer? Alone?”

“Not alone,” Christian interjects. “I’ll of course provide security.”

Carrick takes a deep breath and places his hand over his wife’s. “She’s worked really hard in school this year and she got into Harvard. She’s an adult now.”

“I know, but…”

“Please, Mom? Pleeeeeeeeease?”

Grace looks between Christian and Mia, hesitating, but eventually, she lets out a defeated breath and nods. “Fine.”

“Oh my god!” Mia squeals, then reaches over to grab Tibby’s hands. “Who should we take?”

“Whoever kisses our asses the best until we go,” she replies, and the two of them devolve into a fit of laughter.

I bite my lip nervously. “Are you sur–”

“Mrs. Grey?”

My words cut off as I turn to the doorway, where Taylor is looking at me expectantly. “Yes?”

“Sawyer is here to see you.”

“Sawyer?” Christian repeats, his brow creasing. “Why is Sawyer here? I thought you just saw him?”

“I did.” My face gets hot at the inquisitive look in his eye, and I quickly get out of my chair to avoid any further questions. “I’ll be right back.”

“Ana?” Christian’s voice echos after me as I hurry out of the room, but I don’t turn back to him. I give Taylor a dismissive look, then make a beeline for the entrance hall where Luke is waiting with a beautiful, extremely dark haired girl.

“Luke, what are you doing here?” I hiss.

“We have a problem.”

My back stiffens, and I can nearly feel the blood drain from my face. “A problem? You mean with Mr. Kozlowski?”

“No. Immigration came picked him up this morning, he’s on his way to San Francisco right now for an appeal hearing, but I’ve already confirmed that his request for an extension on his green card is going to be denied. This is a much…”

“Ana?” Christian’s voice sounds from behind me again, and I spin around trying to keep the look of guilt off my face. He walks towards us, his eyes narrowing in on Luke.

“Sawyer, what are you doing here?” he asks.

He replies without missing a beat. “Ana invited me to Mia’s party.”

“Did she?”

“Uh… yeah,” I stutter. “I thought, um…”

“She thought it would be a good chance to introduce everyone to my girlfriend. Mr. Grey, this is Jade. Jade, Christian Grey.”

“Girlfriend?” Christian repeats, and the girl standing next to Luke smiles and reaches her hand out.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Grey.”

Christian shakes her hand, and after a confused glance between the three of us, a smile starts to creep across his lips.

“Girlfriend,” he repeats, clearly pleased by the word. “That’s… wonderful! Welcome, Jade. It’s a pleasure to have you. We’ve just started dinner, but I can have a few more places set. Do you enjoy wine? I’ve just opened a bottle sent to me from a vineyard in Bordeaux.” He shoots a smile back at Luke and I, then walks with Jade out of the entryway, asking her questions about how they met.

“You have a girlfriend?” I hiss once Christian is out of earshot.

“Yeah…”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t plan on telling anyone. Believe me, I’m not an introduce-my-girlfriend-to-the-family kind of guy. But Taylor has a tail on me. I did some digging and it’s because your husband is worried about why you and I are hanging out without your security.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, and he gives me a pointed look that says I should know exactly what he’s talking about. “He thinks I’m cheating on him?”

“Don’t act so surprised, Ana. You know he’s never been comfortable with how close we are. But drawing Taylor’s attention to what we’re doing when no one is around will not work out well for us. So… here I am. Girlfriend in tow.”

“Good thinking. And, thanks.”

“Yeah, you owe me huge. This is going to make her think we’re a lot more serious than we are. I don’t know how, but you somehow manage to make every girl I date think I’m just itching to be tied down.”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah, well… Let’s go. It’s not going to help anything if we’re hanging out in private together while everyone else is in a different room.”

He hooks his arm through mine and drags me back toward the dining room, where everyone takes a minute to ask about Luke’s brand new relationship before finally turning their attention back to Mia. Nearly all of the Greys, including Kate, have been all over Europe, so they’re all eager to give her advice about her upcoming trip, and the enthusiastic attitude around the dining room table makes it difficult for me to voice any concern. Especially since I’ve already promised myself I wouldn’t let Christian see me struggling anymore. And that becomes a problem again once we’ve finished Mia’s birthday cake and the party starts to draw to a close.

“Now, I’m just saying…” Grace begins. “If you two wanted a night off, Carrick and I would be happy to take Calliope home with us.”

Christian turns and brushes his hand over my knee. “What do you think, baby?”

“Overnight?”

Grace nods. “We could take her with us to church in the morning and then maybe the zoo. We’ll have her back to you by dinner.”

“I uh…” I swallow, trying to push down the unease creeping up my throat. I can almost feel in the way that Christian is looking at me that he’s put his mother up to this. Not even as a test, which is what it feels like, but because we promised each other after we got back from the Maldives that we were going to do everything we could to keep life from getting in between us again. That means finding time for our marriage. With everything I’ve had scheduled this week and Christian working on his new project, we haven’t had much alone time together. This is the perfect opportunity and there is absolutely no logical reason for me to worry about Calliope spending a night with her loving and devoted grandparents. So, though it kills me, I nod.

“Sure. She’d love that.”

Christian’s mouth moves slightly as he tries to hide his feelings over having the house to ourselves tonight, and Grace beams so brightly, one would think she’d just been handed the keys to Disneyland.

“Great!” she says. “Don’t you worry about a thing, I’ll just go pack some of her things and we’ll get out of your hair. Carrick, will you help Mia take her gifts out to the car, please?”

“That’s okay, I’m going to stay with Tibby tonight,” Mia says.

Grace nods and makes her way out of the dining room, and instead of letting myself sit and fret over the idea of Calliope spending her very first night away from home, I turn and listen to the grilling questions Kate is already launching at Jade. Luke plays defense until Elliot finally makes Kate pull back a bit and Christian gets up with his father to get an extra car seat. I swallow the lingering doubt I have over Calliope’s first sleepover, and pick her up out of her high chair, wiping down her hands with a wet rag before passing her off to Grace. My dad gets up to hug me, Elliot and I pull Kate out of her chair, and Luke quickly ushers Jade out of the dining room before anyone can ask more questions.

“Call us if you need anything,” Christian says, once everyone has made it outside and we’ve secured Calliope inside his parent’s car. Grace waives him off.

“You two don’t worry about us. Enjoy your night.”

“Oh, we will,” Christian says, and for once his mother doesn’t grimace at the implication under his tone. “Thank you again, Mom.”

Grace winks and kisses her son on the cheek before turning to hug me. Carrick is next, but when I pass him off, Christian doesn’t hug him good-bye.

“I need to schedule a meeting with you next week.”

“Schedule? Why so formal?”

“Because I don’t need a meeting with my father, I need a meeting with the mayor.”

“I haven’t made a final decision on who I’m going to put up for police chief yet, Christian.”

“No, it’s not that. I’d just like to discuss the tax incentives the city of Seattle is willing to grant GEH before the start of the new fiscal year.”

Carrick frowns. “Sorry, son. The budget is tight this year and I don’t have any room to help you out.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Christian says, and with those two words, his entire persona shifts. Gone is my good humored husband and Carrick’s son. In his place is the cold, unwavering CEO. “For the people, I mean.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I just think it’ll probably be difficult for a lot of people should I choose to re-headquarter my company in Tacoma, where they are willing to give me the tax benefits I’m asking for. That’s what… 5,000 locals, voters, unemployed? I imagine it will be a difficult adjustment.”

Carrick takes a step away from his son, looking shocked. “Are you… are you threatening me?”

“No,” Christian dismisses him. “No, of course not. Look, I’ll have Andrea get in touch with your office. We’ll meet next week to discuss this further. I don’t know, maybe… maybe you have more wiggle room than you think.”

“I don’t, Christian.”

“We’ll see. Have a good night, Dad. You got her pacifier with the pink elephant on it, right? She won’t go down without it.”

“I-I–”

Christian wraps an arm around me and pulls me away, leaving his father stuttering and looking dumbfounded. I keep waiting for him to stop and laugh, like this is all some kind of bad joke, but he doesn’t. He leads me right into the house and closes the door behind us.

“Alone at last,” he groans, pushing me into the door and covering his body with mine, but I move out of the way when he leans in to kiss me.

“Christian, what the hell was that?”

“What?” I narrow my eyes at him, and he rolls his. “Look, Seattle is an expensive city to run a business in. I’m doing what I feel is best for my company.”

“By threatening the mayor with 5,000 layoffs if you don’t get enough in tax incentives?”

“Well… yeah. It’s a pretty powerful bargaining chip.”

“Bargaining chip? That’s what you’re calling threatening your father’s career?”

“It’s business, Ana. It’s what I would do regardless of who was in office. I can’t treat him like my dad when it comes to work.”

“This basically blackmail.”

He swallows, hard enough that I can see his adam’s apple move. “Look, Ana. This new project I’m trying to launch isn’t cheap. I don’t have enough in the R&D budget to fund it, even with the grant approvals we received from NASA.”

“So, scrap the project.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes you can.”

“No. I can’t. The implications of this project are too great. I need something that is going to take GEH to the next level, to the highest level, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.”

“Why? We already have more money than we’ll ever be able to spend. Why do you need more?”

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the power.”

“Power?” He inhales sharply through his nose and presses his lips together, like he’s afraid he’s said too much, and I feel a cold chill work its way up my back. “What do you mean by ‘power’, Christian?”

“Nothing. I don’t mean anything. Look, we’re alone. Let’s talk about this tomorrow. Right now…”

He leans in to kiss me, but, again, I move out of the way before his lips can touch mine.

“What do you mean by ‘power’, Christian?”

“Ana…”

“No, I’m not going to fuck you when you’re saying cryptic things I don’t understand and threatening people in our family. We’re going to talk about this now.”

He stares down into my eyes, clearly warring with himself, and when he finally decides how he’s going to answer me, he pulls back, leans against the wall, and looks down at the floor.

“You think you’re the only one all this was hard for? You don’t think seeing Gia holding Calliope in one hand and a gun in the other, or watching Linc put his hands all over you and tell me about all the twisted ways he’s fantasized about you wasn’t the absolute worst moment of my life? That I don’t relive it all the damn time and spend every waking minute replaying that entire night trying to figure out how I could have stopped it? I was powerless, Ana. He was going to take you from me and if your father hadn’t intervened, he would have succeeded. He beat me. And then you fell apart right in front of me and there was nothing I could do to save you. Those few weeks after, when you wouldn’t even talk and you wouldn’t eat and you spent all day, every day, locked in a room with the baby and screamed every time someone came to check on you… I used lie awake at night watching you breathe because I was afraid that you would just… give up and–”

His words stop and his shoulders rise as he takes a deep, calming breath. When he looks up at me, I can see fear in his eyes.

“I was powerless, and now that I know what that feels like, I will never let it happen it again. This project has the potential to make me one of the most powerful men in the entire world. No one will be able to touch us. No one will dare. I’m not worried about money or accolades anymore. I want power. I want to build the kind of empire that controls what’s really important. Information. Policy. World leaders. By the time I’m finished, wars will be fought before anyone ever gets close to you or Calliope again.”

“Christian…” I breathe, and he hangs his head again. I can feel an energy radiating off of him that I’ve never felt before, and it makes my entire body tingle like a million little pin-pricks all over my skin. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt like this?”

“You’re going through enough, Ana.”

I shake my head. “No, I’m fi–”

“Don’t. Don’t say you’re fine.”

“But I am, Christian. Look, I know that it was rough in the beginning, I can’t deny that, but I’m moving on. The Maldives really were good for me. They gave me some distance and let me see the world outside of what happened to us again. I’m doing better. I mean, I let Calliope out of the house. That’s something. I’m taking Mia to Harvard all by myself, I’m doing book signings, I’m meeting Luke for lunch in the city. I’m even thinking about taking a job.”

His brow furrows. “A job?”

“Yeah, I was approached by Greenwich Small Press. They’re looking for someone to step in and run their Seattle division and I’m thinking about going in to interview this week.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to work in publishing anymore. I thought you wanted to write?”

“I do, and this won’t stop me from doing that. But being at that conference today, feeling that energy and talking with all of those unsigned writers felt really right. I think part of the reason it’s been so hard for me to move on from what happened is that I’m stuck. Here. In this house. I don’t have anything to move on to. I mean, you have GEH, Elliot has Grey Construction, Kate has Kavanagh Media… what do I have?”

“You have Calliope.”

I nod. “Yeah, and I love being her mother. But I didn’t go to Harvard to just be a mom. I need something that’s mine, only mine, that I can push myself with and grow with and find success on my own. I told you a long time ago that my dream was to one day run a publishing house so I could help other people’s dreams come true and this is an opportunity to make that happen.”

“I know. That’s why I bought SIP.”

“Yeah, but you bought SIP. This isn’t like that. Greenwich came to me because they knew what I could do and they need me. I earned this.”

“Once again, you’re selling yourself short. I know that you think I gave you Grey Publishing, but I didn’t. Grey Publishing is successful because Boyce Fox’s book sales made us attractive to higher quality authors. You signed him. Grey Publishing is successful because our e-reader brings in enough cash flow to invest heavily in good marketing. That was your project. You were the one who laid the foundation for what it is today, and that has nothing to do with me.”

“But there isn’t space for me there anymore. You gave my job to Elizabeth, remember?”

He narrows his eyes at me. “I think I can find something for you.”

“Don’t you dare, Christian Grey. Elizabeth has done amazing things for GP, and I know because that’s the reason the president of Greenwich was fired. They can’t compete with you. You’re not going to fire her just so you can give your wife a job.”

“I won’t have to fire her,” he argues. “There’s plenty of space for you. We still haven’t hired a permanent replacement for Jack, you could take over the entire fiction department. It’ll give you creative control and you’ll have the opportunity to work closely with authors. And once you have a good team in place, you’ll be able to split your time between work and writing.”

“When did this turn into an offer to work at Grey Publishing?”

“The moment you told me you wanted a job.”

I shake my head. “I don’t want you to hand me a career, Christian. I want to carve a path out for myself, just like you did. It’s validating for me that someone who I’m not married to has approached me with this amazing opportunity, that they need me, and… I think I need them.”

“You won’t be working for yourself, you’ll be working for someone else.”

“That’s not as important to me as it is to you.”

“You’ll be the competition.”

“And I’ll try to take it easy on you.”

Despite himself, he laughs, then takes a deep breath and starts shaking his head. “Just as stubborn as ever. You know this is Harvard all over again.”

“And I won that fight. Over and over and over again. Honestly, you should cave now before I take this job just to spite you and then dedicate my career to burying Grey Publishing.” I give him a defiant look and his expression softens. He raises his hand and places them on either side of my face, staring deeply into my eyes.

“There you are.” It’s the first time in as long as I can really remember that he’s not looking at me like I’m damaged. There is only love and happiness reflected in his eyes and it sends a wave of welcome heat through my body.

“See? I told you, I’m fine.”

“I still think you should come work for me.”

“Well, we can talk about that after my interview. Maybe I won’t like what they have to say. And the guy that asked me to come interview isn’t even the one who makes the final decision. I have to meet with his boss. Maybe they won’t like me as much and I won’t even get the job.”

His expression changes, and after a few seconds a subtle smile plays at the corner of his mouth. “His boss. GSP is owned by a holding company and the CEO– she’s uh… well, she’s… “ He shakes his head. “You’re right. We’ll talk about this if you get the job.”

“Deal.”

“And if you don’t, you’ll come work for me?”

“Maybe. Yeah, I could see that.”

“Then, deal.”

Once again, he tries to kiss me, but I lift my hand to create a barrier between his lips and mine. “And in the meantime?”

He grins. “In the meantime, I plan on taking advantage of this rare night we have alone. I might even… go break into the closet.”

“I meant about GEH and your dad, Christian.”

“I’ll think about it. But I don’t want to talk about this anymore tonight. I want you naked and tied to my headboard.”

I bite my bottom lip. “The closet, huh?”

“Oh yes. You’ve talked a big game tonight, Ana. I think I need to remind you who the boss really is around here.”

So fast that I can’t back away, he bends over and picks me up at the waist, slinging me over his shoulder and making his way for the stairs. I squeal and try to squirm out of his grip but he simply smacks me hard on the behind and continues on all the way to our bedroom.

Next Chapter

Chapter 04

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It’s slightly unnerving how little Dr. Flynn’s office has changed in the last two years. The books on his bookshelf are in the exact same order as they were the last time I had regular session with him, and the same faces look down on me from the picture frames on the walls. Even the decorative design on the kleenex box sitting on the coffee table between us is the same. It makes me feel like I’m right back where I was that summer before my senior year, talking about Elena Lincoln over and over and over again, and I don’t like it. Not even because I hate thinking about the way things were between Christian and I back then and how hard it was going through that time in our lives, but because, now, I’d give anything for that to be the reason I was sitting on this couch again. The reason I’m back, the reason Flynn is currently sitting across from me and staring at me with that patient, understanding look, is a hundred times more difficult to deal with than something as innocuous as Christian running a salon with a woman I despise.

Of course, Christian is late to our session. Again. He has been every Wednesday for the past three weeks and I’m starting to get suspicious that it’s not actually GEH that’s been keeping him. He’s been asking me to go to therapy for myself for months to no avail, so now he’s trying to force me into it. But I won’t let him. This session is for Christian. I’m here for Christian.

While Flynn sits across from me, waiting for me to start, I scroll through my email on my phone and do some online shopping for Calliope. I’m just submitting payment for the world’s smallest, most adorable Harvard sweatshirt when Flynn finally shifts in his chair and clears his throat to get my attention.

“You know, Ana, my time has already started.”

“I know, Christian is just caught up at work. I’m sorry.”

“You’re here. You and I could talk.” His tone is encouraging but careful, the way Christian’s is whenever he tries to bring up what happened or once again implores me to attend my weekly scheduled sessions in this office. It instantly has me on guard.

“What, are you two collaborating now?”

“Is that how you feel? That the people in your life are working against your best interests?”

I raise an eyebrow and cross my arms over my chest, sinking back into the couch and staring back at him defiantly. “No.”

“Christian tells me you’ve had some difficulty talking about what happened. He thinks that you’re struggling more than you’re willing to admit, but everytime he suggests you seek help you shut down.”

“I don’t shut down, I just don’t need therapy. I’m fine.”

“I don’t think your husband agrees with you.”

“That’s because my husband has a pathological need to fix things and he’s been looking at me for months like I’m this broken thing that just needs to be put back together. But I’m not. I’m fine. He only wants me here because he’s been in therapy since he was four years old, so it’s his knee jerk reaction for every problem.”

“I don’t think that’s true. I believe it was you who pushed him to come see me in the beginning. In fact, in our early sessions, he made it clear to me that the only reason he sat in that chair was because you made it an ultimatum for your relationship. Clearly, you thought it was helpful then, so what makes it different now?”  

“Because we’re not talking about Christian, we’re talking about me. Therapy is only helpful to people who need it. I’m not one of those people.”

He nods. “Okay, tell me about that. Why do you think it was good for Christian and not for you?”

“Because Christian had a relationship with a woman who molested him and abused him for years and didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed therapy to understand what she really did to him. I have no illusions about what Andrew Lincoln was. He was a sick, sadistic man who let a grudge he held against a nineteen year old drive him to murder. He was insane, and violent, and the world is a better place now that he’s gone. But he’s gone and I have come to terms with that. I don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want to think about him. I just need some time to feel what I need to feel about what happened to me and to my family without everyone around me trying to decide what is best for me and treating me like a china doll they all watched shatter across the floor and now are desperately trying to glue back together again.”

The longer I speak the more the emotions I spend all my time trying to suppress begin to bubble out of me, and the power-high I’ve been riding all afternoon vanishes the instant I let myself say Andrew Lincoln’s name aloud. My voice is higher than normal, my muscles are tight, and there’s a dry ache building the back of my throat that I know means I’m about to cry. I break eye contact with Flynn, take a deep breath to gain control of myself, and prepare what I’m going to say when he starts to argue with me. But he doesn’t. He nods.

“Okay.”

I look up, my brow furrowed in confusion. “What?”

“Okay. If you think you’re coping well on your own, I’m not in a position to tell you otherwise. Given what you’ve been through, I think time is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask of those you love. We don’t have to talk about Andrew Lincoln if you don’t want to.”

“Oh.” I let out a long, relieved breath. “Thank you. You’re the only person who’s said that to me.”

“You’re welcome, Anastasia. How’s your writing going?”

“My writing?”

He smiles. “I read your book. I thought it was fantastic. Isaiah’s journey to find hope after such a dark time was heartbreaking, and beautiful. I saw a lot of you in him, Anastasia, and a lot of what you shared with me here, in this very office. I think you worked through your feelings and your pain in a very meaningful and productive way. In fact, I can see now why it drove Christian’s realization so effectively. I hope it’s something you’re continuing. Have you started something new?”

“Yeah.” I nod.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s um… It’s a love story. I started it last summer, because I felt like I had spent so much time writing about the bad parts of my relationship with Christian that I wanted to change and write about everything that’s so wonderful. It was a good distraction over the last few months, focusing on the things I’m grateful for rather than the things I’m not.”

“Was? Is it finished?”

I press my lips together in hesitation. “Yes. And… no. I mean, I’m at the end but something about it feels wrong. I’ve read through it three times since I finished, trying to figure out what it is, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I don’t know. But the story is about Christian, the way he loves me, and the way I love him, so I need it to be perfect. It’s not done until it’s perfect.”

“That seems like a tall order.”

“It is, but it’s my job.” I take a deep breath and shake my head. “I’ll figure it out. I just need… I don’t know.”

“Well, you used to work in publishing. If you weren’t writing this story, if you were a fiction editor, say, and one of your authors came to you with this problem, what advice would you give them?”

I stop and think about that. It’s not an angle I’ve considered before, but, surprisingly, it works.

“Distance helps,” I tell him.

He raises an eyebrow at me. “What do you mean?”

“Sometimes, when your stuck in the weeds like this, it helps to put the project away for a while. To find something else to work on, clear your head, and return with brand new perspective. Distance.”

“Okay, so how can you accomplish that? Do you have any other projects you could focus on for a while?”

“No, I’ve…” I stop, because a new thought stops me. I don’t have another project I can work on now, and I don’t want to step away from my novel for something unproductive or that isn’t meaningful enough to deserve my time. But if the idea is to completely occupy myself so that I can return to my writing with new, fresh perspective, there’s a new possibility that I didn’t give any credence before. Now, though…

“I got a job offer this afternoon,” I say.

“Oh?” Flynn looks intrigued, so I nod and sit up for the first time since I entered this session.

“Yeah. There’s a publishing house in Seattle that needs an overhaul. Their sales are dropping, they’re not signing as many new authors… I’ve been there before, with SIP. I know how to help them, I have the experience, and I have a unique perspective of both sides of the industry that would be difficult to find in another candidate.”

“That’s true,” Flynn agrees. “So, they reached out to you?”

“I had a conversation with the president of their New York office today before lunch, and he said they’d be very interested in interviewing me. He kind of implied that, if I wanted it, the job was mine.”

“Sounds like a perfect fit then.”

“But they’re competitors with Grey Publishing,” I argue. “Taking this job would mean that I’d be working against the best interest of my husband’s company.”

“Ah, that does complicate things.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t–”

“Am I interrupting?” Flynn and I both turn and see Christian poking his head through the door of the office. There’s a mixture of nerves and hope muddled together in his eyes as he glances between Flynn and I.

I smile. “No, not at all. Come in.”

He steps into Flynn’s office, closes the door behind him, and joins me on the couch. His hand wraps around mine and quickly raises my fingers so he can press his lips into each and every one of them. Once he’s finished, he pulls our conjoined hands into his lap and turns to face our therapist.

“What are we talking about?”

“My book,” I say quickly, before Flynn can speak. “He read Escape, and he was telling me what he thought.”

“Your book?” Christian repeats, a hint of disapproval beneath his flat tone. He looks back and forth between us before eventually dropping my hand from his and pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. “I don’t understand why you’re fighting me on this, Ana.”

“I’m not fighting you on anything.”

“Yes! You are.”

“No, I’m not. Christian, I’m fi–”

“I swear to god, Ana. If you tell me you’re fine one more time.”

“But I am!”

“No, you’re not. Fine isn’t waking up screaming almost every night and fighting me off of you like you think I’m going to hurt you.”

“That’s…” I hesitate, at a loss for words. “I can’t control that, Christian. Don’t you think I want to?”

“But that’s what I’m telling you, Ana. You can’t control it because you’re not dealing with it. I know. This used to happen to me all the time and it didn’t stop until I admitted I needed help and worked through the problem.”

“This is different. We’re different, Christian.”

He shakes his head. “I wish I could show you how wrong you are about that, Ana.”

“Well, this might be an opportunity,” Flynn interrupts. “In my experience working with patients suffering from PTSD–”

“I don’t have PTSD,” I correct him, but he gives me the same doubtful look someone would give a child who was caught doing something wrong and tried to deny it anyway. It breaks my confidence a little, and, as I start to fidget uncomfortably, he continues.

“Like I said, in my experience working with patients suffering from PTSD, I’ve observed a pattern of isolation. Feeling stuck and obsessing internally over something that happened in the past can make a person feel alien, like there’s a separation between them and everyone around them that they just can’t get past and they’re living in a different world than everyone else. It’s why support groups are so useful. It helps with the isolation to know that someone can truly empathize with you. Christian, perhaps if you share your experience, it might make Ana more comfortable sharing hers.”

He stares back at Flynn, unblinking. “She knows my past.”

“She knows what happened, but she might not know your experience. You say that you see similarities between what she’s going through and what you’ve gone through in the past, take this opportunity to explain what you mean.”

He still doesn’t immediately say anything. Instead, he sits back in his chair and stares irritably at Flynn, chewing on the side of his index finger. Eventually though, he sits up again, takes a deep breath, and looks at me.

“It’s the dreams.”

I swallow the lump that grows in my throat when I see the pain in his eyes and reach out for his hand, but he moves it away. The rejection stings, but I don’t think it was really purposeful. He looks down at our hands for a long moment, blinks, then wraps his hand around mine and shifts his gaze back up to my eyes.

“I just want to help you, baby.”

“I know, and I appreciate that. But I don’t need you to save me, Christian. I’m fine, really.”

He shakes his head. “Alright. If it’ll make you see reason…” He pauses, looking as though he’s having trouble summoning the right words, then takes a deep breath and continues. “I don’t remember a lot about my life before Grace and Carrick. I don’t remember what my biological mother looked like or what she did with me if she was ever sober enough to pay attention to me. I don’t even know that times like that existed. But some things I remember perfectly because for years, I saw them every night in my dreams.”

“Your mother?” I check. He shakes his head.

“The scars on my chest… I remember how I got each and every one of them. I remember the first time so vividly that sometimes I can still smell the burning flesh under his cigarette. I remember his voice and the sound of his boots as he stomped around the house trying to find me. I can still feel the crack of his belt as he beat me over the side of my mother’s filthy couch. But she’s not there in any of the dreams. She’s not trying to protect me, she’s not trying to stop him…”

He’s not looking at me anymore. He’s staring off into space and I wonder if that’s because he sees it now just as clearly as he did in his dreams. Or as clearly as I can still see the slow creep of blood as it pooled around Gia’s lifeless body. That’s a common theme in my own nightmares, no one coming to save me. I can scream for Christian, I can beg for Luke to find me, but no one ever comes. When I picture Christian as a small child, dangling over the arm of a sofa while being held down with one strong hand and beat with the other, it’s only too easy for the faceless man he describes to morph into Lincoln. And then I’m there too.

“Most of the time,” Christian continues, “I’m at home alone, hungry and scared because it’s dark and I don’t know when my mother will get home. There was a place in the back of my closet I used hide. I liked it because I could see my bedroom door through the crack between the closet door and the wall, but there was enough junk in the closet to hide me from plain sight if anyone came in. It felt safe, comfortable, even though I was hungry. So hungry. Until I could hear the front door open, and, instead of hearing my mother fumbling around trying to get to her room, I heard his boots.”

“It’s okay, Christian,” I say, trying to stop him. The fear in his voice resonates with my own and makes my chest feel tight. I grip his hands tighter and shake my head. “It’s okay, I understand. It’s the same.”

He looks back over at me, and reaches up to brush his thumb across my lower lip to stop it from trembling.

“I’m a grown man,” he continues, “and that sound still terrifies me. It didn’t matter if it was getting closer or farther away, it terrified me. Because I knew, no matter what, he would find me eventually. He always found me, and when he did, he always hurt me. He liked it. I have seen the pleasure he took in my pain and in my fear reflected in his eyes a thousand times. The burn made me scream, and that was satisfying to him, but the belt… The belt he could draw out, savor each and every lash until I bled. I was four. There was no way I could get away from him or the belt, and when I tried he hit me harder. He liked it when I tried.”

A hot jolt of pain and disgust flashes through me like a bolt of lightning and, suddenly, I can smell Linc’s cologne on me again. Christian is sitting close enough to me that I can feel the heat of his breath wash over me when it speaks and it makes the thoughts of Lincoln pinning me to the floor and telling me all the vile things he planned to do to my body feel close, and too real. I couldn’t fight him either. He was so much stronger than me that even as I pushed and kicked to get away, he held me down beneath him as easily as if I laid perfectly still.

I can’t take it. My breath feels like it freezes inside my lungs and I start to shake.

“Stop,” I beg him. “Stop.”

He doesn’t. “I could feel it in my dreams, the pain of every lash. But that was never enough to wake me. Especially when I got older. What woke me every time was the feel of his hands on me…”

“Stop!” I jump to my feet and back away from the couch, holding my hands out in front of me protectively. “Stop, okay? I’m done. I want to go home.”

“Ana, this is what I’m trying to tell you,” Christian argues. “It doesn’t go away on its own. You have to deal with this or it’s just going to get worse. Believe me, I’ve lived through this.”

“I want to go home,” I say again.

“No. I’m not letting you run from this anymore.”

“Christian!”

“Alright, alright,” Flynn finally intervenes. “We’ve moved past productive space. Everyone take a breath and lets get back on track here.”

“No. I’m done. I want to go home.”

“Ana, I’m sorry…”  

“I want. To go. Home!” I snap, then turn and storm out of Flynn’s office. They both call out for me to come back, but I don’t. I push through the door into the lobby, find a chair, and sit there, shaking and trying not to cry, until Christian finally comes after me.

“I’m sorry, Ana,” he says, looking down at me with regret.

I shake my head. “No, you’re not.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m not. I meant to scare you. I want to break down your walls and make you open up to me.”

“Great.”

“Ana, I just… I know how hard this is and I know that what your doing now isn’t going to make it any easier. It only gets harder and I don’t want you to go through what I did. Please, baby…”

I meet his eyes with mine and I can feel him silently imploring me as we stare at one another. It’s difficult, because I know he’s in pain too, but I’m not strong enough to do what he’s asking of me. I used to be. Before, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to stop Christian from looking the way he does right now. But I can’t anymore. That part of me is gone, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get it back.

“I’m sorry that this is hard for you,” I whisper with shame. “But I want to go home.”

Christian takes a deep breath and his lips press together in a thin, angry line. “Fine. Let’s go then.”

He doesn’t say anything more as we walk to the car. He holds my hand and opens the door for me, but he doesn’t speak. When Taylor pulls out of the downtown parking garage, he pulls out his phone and immediately goes into his email.

I chew on the inside of my cheek, wondering if it’s better to try and work through the anger and resentment brewing between us now, in front of our security, or spend an evening playing nice and trying to act like everything is normal in front of our daughter and then get into a blowout right before bed. Neither sounds ideal.

“Mia’s birthday is this weekend,” he says, interrupting my silent struggle, but still not looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I reply. “Has your mom told you what we’re doing?”

“Well, we we’re going to do something big since she’s turning eighteen and we really haven’t done anything to celebrate her getting into Harvard, but Mia has asked for something small. A dinner with just the family.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I was thinking we could do it at our house. Mom and Dad are pretty much full time at the apartment downtown now, so we have the most space.”

“Our house? I don’t know… I have a thing this weekend.”

“A thing?”

“A writer’s summit. I’m doing a signing Saturday afternoon. I won’t be able to cook dinner.”

“That’s fine. Just decide what you want to do and I’ll take care of it.” His tone is still curt, and it makes every word he speaks feel like a chastisement.

“Okay. Mia likes Italian, right?” He nods, his eyes still focused on his phone. “Lasagna, then. Or maybe a soup? It’s been a little cold this past week.”

He doesn’t even react that time, much less suggest something else. His fingers move over the keyboard of his phone, and his eyes never leave the screen.

“I guess, we’ll need to find a gift, too,” I continue, trying to force him to at least look at me. “Something special since she’s eighteen.” I wait for a response, but, again, nothing. I bite my lip and start twisting my fingers together uncomfortably in my lap. “My dad bought me like a hundred dollars worth of lottery tickets when I turned eighteen and, I didn’t win anything, but it was fun. What do you think?”

“I think she’s going to have access to an $8 million trust fund in four years. Lottery tickets seem frivolous.”

“Well, everything’s frivolous when you have money. It’s not like there’s a single thing the world she actually needs. She purposely buys your dad the ugliest tie she can find for Father’s Day every year. That’s frivolous.”

“Fine. Get her lottery tickets, then. Whatever you want, it’s fine.”

“She’s your sister, you know her better.”

“Then I’ll take care of it.”

“Christian…”

“Hang on.” He lifts his phone to his ear and waits half a second before he launches into a long exposition of business speak with Ros. I wait a few minutes for him to finish, but it becomes clear very quickly that his conversation isn’t going to be brief. My heart sinks and I start to feel uncomfortable in a way that I really haven’t before. I know Christian is angry about me refusing therapy yet again, but normally when he’s angry he yells. Yelling I can deal with. This is worse. Much worse.

I turn and stare out the rain splattered window, thinking about the session we just went through. I can remember, from the first time we had counseling together, that Christian didn’t like the place it always left us in immediately afterwards, because I always left hurt and angry. Was this what it felt like for him? Did he feel like everything he was sure of before was suddenly slipping through his fingers? Or do I only feel this way because of the things I just listened to him say?

Because he was right when he said he understood. The fear he described feeling because of his nightmares is exactly how I feel when I’m trapped in mine. And the confusion between the dream and reality right when you wake up… Except that actually might be worse for him. When I wake up, when I’m first able to hold onto something real, the fear from my dreams vanishes as quickly as it came. I know that Andrew Lincoln is dead. I know that the terror he puts me through in unconsciousness will stay there and never come for me again. Christian doesn’t have that luxury. The man who tortured him is still out there, somewhere, and the only thing Christian has to protect himself from him is anonymity.

Christian Grey and anonymity.

It sounds like an oxymoron.

I wonder if he’s still afraid.

His words swirl through my head the rest of the drive home, becoming more and more real and threatening on every repetition. I can picture everything he said so clearly I can almost hear the stomp of the man’s boots on the floor, or smell the faint scent of whiskey and cigarettes wafting off of him. It makes me nauseous to think about Christian as a defenseless child being burned with the bright red cherry of a cigarette. It’s bad enough that, by the time we get home, I have to excuse myself for the restroom while he goes to relieve Kensie and get Calliope dinner.

I lock the door behind me when I step into the downstairs bathroom, then turn to stare at my reflection in the mirror. I look pale, clammy even, but I don’t throw up like I thought I would. Instead, I start to shake and tears pool in my eyes. My knees give out, I sink down onto the cool, tile floor, and I begin to cry.  There’s an image of Christian as child, huddled beneath his bed, praying to God that no one finds him, stuck in my mind. But as I try to shake it away, it changes and my whole body tenses as a gunshot rings in my ears and the memory of the man that I love staggering backwards and collapsing to the floor plays so clearly it’s like I’m watching it happen right in front of me all over again.

“No,” I whimper, reaching for my phone. “No, no, no.”

My fingers shake as I dial Luke’s number and I try the best I can to blink away the tears while I listen to my phone ring.

“Hey, how was therapy?” he answers.

“Luke…”

“Ana? Are you okay? What’s wrong?” His voice is urgent, scared, which makes him difficult to answer.

“Luke, I need to-to kno-w…”

“Ana, what happened? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fi-ine.” I take a breath to try and steady my voice. “I’m fine. Please tell me that you have contacts in Detroit.”

“Detroit? No, I don’t think so…”

I swallow again. “Correct that.”

“What? Ana, what’s wrong?”

“After Cambridge, our next target will be in Detroit. I need you to make contacts in Detroit so we can make that happen.”

“Why?”

“Can you do that, Luke? Or do I need to figure something else out?”

“No, I can do it. Of course I can do it. But… Ana, what’s going on?”

His reassurances calm me down enough that I can breathe without sobbing, and after a few, calming breaths, I can speak regularly. “Nothing. Just another name to add to the list.”

“Um, okay…”

“I’ve got to go, Luke. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“Ana-”

I hang up and let my head fall back against the door. I can’t go join my husband until I know I’m fully in control of myself again, so I wait. With my eyes closed, I sit there and let myself relax, just to see if the images of the beautiful copper haired little boy who looks like my husband will return. Thankfully, they don’t. Having a plan of action seems to have effectively soothed the fear of this threat just like our plan this afternoon soothed so many others. I get off the floor, wash the evidence of my tears from my face, and take a deep breath before opening the door and searching through the house for Christian and Calliope.

“Hey,” he says, looking up with concern when I enter the dining room. “You okay?”

“Yeah, of course I am. I just wanted to wash my makeup off.” I smile broadly and hold my hands out for my daughter. “Hey, munchkin! How was your day?”

“Dada,” she says, reaching out for me with her tiny fingers.

“No, baby,” Christian corrects her. “That’s Mama. Can you say mama?”

“Dada!” she repeats, more instantly this time. Christian looks up at me with regret, but I shake my head and pull Callie into me.

“It’s fine. Yes, Dada. Dada’s home, huh? Yeah.” She giggles as I kiss her all over her face, then lower her back down into her high chair. Christian, or possibly Gail, has already prepared her dinner so once I set her down. Christian scoops up another mouth full of mashed peas and swirls it around her mouth before she finally takes a bite.

“There’s salad in there,” he tells me. I turn to look at the kitchen and nod.

“Sounds great. Can I get you some too?”

“Yes, thank you.” He grins as Calliope leans forward in her chair, arms and fingers stretched out as far as they can go, and makes a series of small cackling sounds through her mouth full of peas. I laugh, feeling the last of the anxiety I was holding in my body melt away at the sounds my funny little girl makes, then turn to the kitchen to get dinner for myself and Christian.

His mood seems to improve as we eat. He laughs with Callie as he feeds her and when he looks over at me, I can see happiness glimmering in his eyes. He goes with me to give her a bath once dinner is finished and while I wash her, he takes everything she hands him (toys, bottles, handfuls of bubbles) and thanks her for each and every one of them. Once she’s washed, he wraps her in a towel and carries her off to the nursery while I clean the mess we’ve left behind. A few minutes later, I find her dressed and curled up in his arms in the rocking chair by the crib while he reads her favorite bedtime story out loud.

“Ung, Dada!”

“Yeah,” he says brightly, pointing at the page open in front of them. “That’s a bunny. Do you know what bunnies do?” She looks up at him with wide eyes and he scrunches his nose up several times until the tip of his nose is pressed into hers. She reaches up and grabs his cheeks with her fingers, then tries to contort her face the way her dad does. It’s adorable.

I laugh and Christian looks up at me standing in the doorway. The smile he gives me then is genuine and loving, and I can’t help but smile back. Closing the book, he sweeps Calliope up into his arms and lays her gently in her crib.

“I love you, baby girl,” he tells her as he winds up the mobile over her bed. I pick up the baby monitor, hook it on the rail by her head, and kiss both of her chubby, pink cheeks.

“I love you too.”

She yawns and blinks several times, so Christian and I both back slowly away from the crib, waiting for her to start crying. But she doesn’t. We turn out the light and ease the door almost closed without her putting up a fuss.

“I think we’ve done it,” I whisper to Christian. “I think we’ve officially gotten her to be okay with bedtime.”

“I think you’re right, Mrs. Grey.”

With a smile, I lean up on my toes and kiss him. His lips play softly against mine for a moment, but all too soon he pulls away and brushes my cheek with his thumb.

“I’ve got some things I need to take care of. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”

“Oh,” I reply, taken aback. “I-uh… okay.”

He kisses me softly one more time, then squeezes my hand and turns down the hall in the direction of his office. I stand there watching him go, feeling dumbfounded. I thought maybe he’d worked through his feelings from therapy on his own, but apparently not. Normally, I’d let him stew on his own for a while before I tried to talk to him, but I don’t like the way this feels between us right now. It’s different, standoffish, and it makes my scalp prickle. So, instead of leaving him be, I quickly come up with a contingency plan, then turn and make my way to our bedroom. There’s a new nighty in my lingerie drawer that I bought last week, and after freshening up in the bathroom for a moment, I slip into the smooth silk and lace, cover myself in a loose bathrobe, and head to his office.

He’s sitting at his desk on his laptop when I slip inside, and he doesn’t look up at me as I approach.

“What if you didn’t work tonight?”

“Can’t. Busy.”

“I thought we should talk…”

“Oh, now you want to talk?”

“Christian–”

“Look, Ana, I get it, okay? This isn’t easy for you to talk about and that’s fine. I know that you’re still scared, but that’s never going to change if you don’t face it. It’s going to get worse. Believe me, I’ve been through it. I know.”

I shake my head. “It’s not the same.”

“It is though.” He pulls my hand so that I move to stand between his knees and looks up at me, his gaze imploring. “It kills me to see you like this, baby. It kills me to see how it’s changed you. You’re not as open with me as you used to be, you’re not as warm or trusting. I love you so much, Anastasia, and every time I look into your eyes and see the walls that you’ve put up to try and hold yourself together…” He stops, shakes his head, then lifts my hands so he can kiss my fingers again. “Please, baby. Let me help you.”

“You do help me,” I reply, unable to conjure enough force behind my words to keep my voice from trembling. I pull his hands around my waste, then crawl into his lap so that my knees are tucked under each of his elbows. He leans into me, resting his forehead against my sternum, but I take his face in my palms and force him to look up at me.

“I know this has been difficult, and I know that you mean well, but I’m just not ready to talk about it yet. You need to give me some time.”

He shakes his head. “Everyday you get a little colder. A little more closed off. That’s not the girl I fell in love with. I’m afraid that if I give you anymore time I’m going to lose you completely.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I’m still your Ana. I’m always going to be your Ana. I love you, Christian. More than anything else in the world. And nothing will ever make me feel more whole than your love. No matter how dark it gets, no matter how much I feel like I’m drowning, you’re always there. Your love is like a life preserver. That’s how you help me.”

“It’s not enough.” He tries to look away, but I stop him.

“Just tell me one thing. Would you do anything to protect me?”

“Of course I would.”

Anything? Maybe even something you know you shouldn’t but that you know will make Calliope and me safer.”

“What do you mean?”

I bite my lip, choosing my next words carefully. “If there was a threat and you were worried about me and our daughter, would you do everything in your power to stop it, even if what you were doing was… not necessarily moral?”

He hesitates for a long moment, and then nods. “Yes. I would do whatever was necessary to keep you safe, no matter what it cost me.”

“Would you tell me.”

His mouth pops open, but he doesn’t reply. Almost as if he can’t force the words out because he knows that if he were to promise me he would, it would be a lie. I can see that in the conflict etched across his face, and it helps. It strengthens my resolve.

“It’s okay,” I tell him, then lean down and press my lips into his before he can speak. Not in the same, chaste way I’ve kissed him all night, but in a way filled with meaning and promise. My hands never move from the sides of his face as my tongue invades his mouth, and soon, with me writhing and grinding in his lap, his hands move up and start to pull away the robe tied around me.

“Tell me you love me,” I whisper.

“I love you.”

“Show me.”

“Oh, baby…” he breathes, the desire in his voice clear. I move away from his lips and work my way down his body, leaving a trail of kisses in my wake. He groans as I sink to the floor and pushes back his chair to give me room. I look up and hold his gaze as I start to unravel his belt and undo his fly. The gray looking back at me turns molten as I close my hands around his erection.

“Well look what we have here,” I say coyly, running the flat of my tongue up his entire length. His breath hisses between his teeth and he tilts his pelvis towards me, encouraging me. I gently kiss the tip, then pull away. “I’ll wait for your command, sir.”

He smiles, then tangles his fist in my hair. “Suck my cock.”

“Mmm.” My tongue dashes across my lips and I sit up on my knees and lean into his lap, keeping my lips wet and tight around him as I pull him all the way into the back of my throat. He shudders, and it makes my entire body feel hot and ready. Setting a pace that matches the thrust of his hips, I suck him over and over again. With every pass of my tongue over the tip of his erection, I moan as though tasting the steady bead of precum dripping out of him is like being fed a rare delicacy. His fervor increases with mine until he’s tense, panting, and growling with wild need each and every time he hits the back of my throat.

“That’s it, baby. Almost there.”

I groan with pleasure and tighten my lips around him, but, just as I think he’s about to explode, his phone vibrates loudly on his desk and I freeze.

“Fuck,” he hisses, reaching out to silence the call. I wait until he tosses his phone back on his desk before taking him back in my mouth, but I’ve only just begun when his phone starts buzzing again.

“Hold on, baby.” He picks up the phone, reads the name on the screen, and frowns. “It’s Ros…”

I can tell by the hesitation in his voice that he’s expecting this call, and that it’s important. So I nod and pull back, but he stops me from getting up. I raise an eyebrow at him while his conflicted gaze shifts between me and his phone, but after a second or two, his mouth sets in a firm line of determination.

“Be very quiet,” he warns me, then he guides my mouth back onto his erection and answers the call. “Ros? No, of course not. Did you hear back from Sullivan?”

I smile, feeling a rush of excitement at this new challenge. He thinks he’ll get through a business call with my mouth around his cock? We’ll see about that.

Making as little noise as possible, I set back to work. It doesn’t take long for me to get him right back to where he was just before Ros called, but surprisingly his voice remains smooth and even every time he responds to her. It’s hot. More so than I anticipated. As I massage him with my tongue and push him deep into the tightest parts of my throat, I’m reminded a little of the fantasy I shared with him forever ago. Any second, Ros may notice something is off. She could catch us. And the possibility of that has my blood nearly boiling.

“Right,” Christian croaks, the first sign of strain breaking through is voice. I take that as the best sign I’m going to get that he’s getting close and push myself into him as far as I can go, then swallow him over and over again.

“Hold on a second, Ros,” he says, then pulls the phone as far away as he can reach, tightens his free hand in the roots of my hair, and comes down the back of my throat. My entire body sings with pleasure as I feel his thighs convulse and tremble beneath my hands. When he’s finished I refuse to stop until he pulls me off of him. When he does, his eyes flame down at me with desire, and I bite down on my lip as he puts the phone back to his ear.

“That all sounds great,” he says, with as much control as he can muster. “Send me the details and I’ll look over them in the morning. I’ll have Andrea schedule a meeting for us in the afternoon to discuss. Excellent. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Have a good night, Ros.”

He hangs up, tosses his phone back onto his desk, and then lifts me from the ground. I reach behind me to push his laptop out of the way while he moves me onto the desk in front of him, then lie back to enjoy the feel of his lips as he kisses up my thigh.

“You. Are. So. Fucking. Sexy. Ana,” he says, kissing me between each word.

I prop myself up on my elbows, and smile down at him. “I serve at your pleasure, Master.”

“You’re damn right you do,” he replies, then he dives face first between my legs. I fall back again, arching my back high off the desk and tightening my thighs around the sides of his head. And, as I writhe and pant under the expert way his tongue moves over me, I resolve to myself that I’ll never let Christian see me suffering over what happened again. From this moment on, I will be his Ana.

Only his Ana.

I just have to find a way to make that possible.

Next Chapter

 

Chapter 03

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“Aaana.”

“Aaaaaaaana.”

“Ana!”

 

I gasp and sit bolt upright. It takes a moment for me to slow the desperate pants that rattle me and to silence the cold, haunting voice still ringing inside my head. Months later, I can hear it as clearly as I could through the phone at graduation or whispering into my ear as he trapped me against him with one hand and held Christian at gunpoint with the other.

He’s dead. He’s not coming after us anymore. We’re safe.

Taking a deep, soothing breath, I turn and look at the empty space in the bed next to me, then at the clock on the opposite bedside table. It’s nearly six, so Christian is probably down in the gym, and normally I’d feel a sense of longing for not getting to kiss him the moment I wake up, but his absence means I’ll get away with my nightmare. And anytime I don’t have to face the overly worried look in his eye is a small, but important, victory.

I pull back the covers and climb out of bed, going to the window, the way I do every morning, to take in the view of Lake Washington behind our house. The sun has only just started to peak over the mountains in the east, but the sky is surprisingly clear. The water, which has been dark and turbulent all winter, is now still and takes on the subtle pink hue of the sunrise. It’s beautiful and it gives me something else to think about other than my nightmare. A way to anchor myself to reality. For the past six months, that’s been the key to my survival.

Distraction.

I stand at the window for a while, watching the ripples the light breeze creates in the water until I’m ready to start my day. Despite how early it is, Calliope could wake any minute. Or, possibly, not for a few hours. So, rather than get in the shower and risk missing her cries for me over the baby monitor, I pull Christian’s Harvard t-shirt from my drawer, throw on a pair of leggings and running shoes, and make my way down the gym to join my husband. He’s on the rowing machine this morning, watching the news on the TV over his head, and he’s already dripping with sweat.

That also gives me something else to think about.

“Good morning,” I tell him, stepping on the treadmill and adjusting the settings for my morning run. He turns to look at me, surprised.

“Hey, what are you doing up?”

“Oh just not quite adjusted to the time difference, I guess.”

He pulls the cord on the machine, jettisoning himself backwards with the strength of his arms and legs, then eases himself back, releases the handle, and steps off the machine. I just make it to the pace I’ve set for myself before he reaches across the control panel and hits the kill switch on the treadmill.

“Well, since you’re awake, what do you say we find another way to get a work out in this morning?”

“Cardio is important, Christian.”

“Oh, I’ll give you cardio.” His eyes glisten and I smile, then reach over to grip his jaw with my fingers and pull his lips to mine. His arms twist around me in the next second, and before I know it, he’s sweeping me off my feet and onto the cabinet that holds all his boxing gear. He moans as I wrap my arms around his neck, my legs around his waist, and pull him into me.

“I sure hope you’re planning on being quick,” I tell him. “You’ll be late for work.”

“Fuck work. I’m quitting today.”

I laugh. “Yeah, uh huh.”

He smiles, then buries his face in my neck, kissing and sucking until I moan with want.

“Touch me,” he whispers.

I reach down and slip my hand beneath the elastic of his work out shorts and boxers. He pushes his hips into me when my fingers wrap around him, but I don’t give him the friction he’s silently begging for. Instead, I hold him in my hand, squeezing and releasing him over and over again, kneading him in my palm, waiting for him to beg.

“Ana,” he growls, clearly frustrated.

“What?” I reply with a coy smile.

He thrusts his hips forward once more, but when that doesn’t change my gentle ministration. He pulls away from me, yanks me off the cupboard, and spins me around so that I’m bent over the counter with my wrists secured in one of his hands behind my back.

“You want to draw this out?” he asks. The need in his voice makes his words come out sounding rough, like gravel.

I shiver. “No.”

“Mmm, you’re sure?” With his free hand, he hooks his fingers through the band of my leggings and slowly rolls them down over my behind. I can feel him, hard and ready, pressing into my backside, but as I squirm against him, the baby monitor sitting on the end of the counter suddenly lights up and fills the room with the insistent, piercing cries of my daughter.

I don’t even have to look at him, I can feel his body deflate behind me.

“I’m going to give that girl a very stern talking to.”

I laugh, and once he releases my hands, I stand and pull my leggings back over my hips.

“Don’t. In fact, if you could get out of here without her seeing you, that would really make my morning easier.”

He raises an eyebrow at me. “I don’t even get to say good morning?”

“Every time she watches you leave for work, she has a meltdown. Yesterday it took me over an hour to get her to stop screaming.”

He sighs, but nods. “Alright, just give me twenty minutes.”

“Thank you.” He leans in to kiss me, but doesn’t turn to leave after he pulls away. “Don’t forget we have therapy tonight.”

My shoulders slump. “I know.”

His fingers brush the side of my face tenderly. I know he’s trying to be reassuring, but there’s nothing comforting about the thought of sitting in Flynn’s office and having both he and Christian try to force me to talk about all the things I spend every waking moment trying to forget.

“I love you.”

“Not like I love you,” I tell him. With one last kiss, he finally pulls away, but I call out to stop him just as he gets to the door. “Christian, I’m going to be out this afternoon. So if you call and I don’t answer, that’s why.”

His brow furrows. “Where are you going?”

“I have an errand to run for the foundation in the city.”

“You’re going downtown?” He’s surprised, and he should be. I’ve avoided downtown Seattle as much as possible since last August, and the few times I’ve actually gone were either necessary due to family or therapy. Christian’s been to two GEH events without me since then, and I’ve cancelled lunch with Ros four times.

“It’s important,” I assure him.

“Well, keep your phone on. And make sure Woods coordinates with Taylor.”

“Actually, I’m not taking Woods with me.”

“You’re not? Why?”

“I’m going with Luke. He’s picking me up for lunch and then tagging along while I do what I have to. He’ll drop me off at Flynn’s office when we’re finished.”

“He’s not your CPO anymore, Ana.”

“So? Just because you don’t pay him to look after me anymore doesn’t mean he won’t. Besides, we’re safe now right? That’s what you and Flynn keep telling me, that the world isn’t out to get us. I should be able to run an errand in the city without worrying about a gun being held to my head. Are you telling me now that you don’t actually think that’s true?”

He stares back at me and doesn’t respond for a long time. I have him cornered and, watching him struggle internally with what to say next, it begins to feel like a low blow. I know that he’s overly cautious and, as much as he wants me to feel safe, he also wants me to ensure I actually am safe. But I need Luke this afternoon, not Woods, and I feel safer with him than I do almost anyone in the world. The man took three bullets for me.

Christian’s jaw moves, like he’s chewing on the inside of his cheek, and finally nods. “Alright. Have Sawyer coordinate with Taylor then.”

“I will. I love you.”

“I love you too. Kiss Calliope for me.”

When he leaves, I’m overcome with a deep rooted feeling of guilt. I’m not usually the one who keeps secrets, not like this, but if this is going to happen the way it needs to, Christian can’t know about it.

And it has to happen.

The cries start through the baby monitor again, louder this time, pulling me out of my internal struggle. With a sigh, I shake off the uncomfortable feeling, then make my way out of the gym and across the house towards the nursery. Calliope is standing in her crib when I get there and she clings to the railing like she’s locked in some horrible, inhumane prison. There are huge crocodile tears rolling down her beet red cheeks. I don’t remember the last time I saw her looking so distressed and, though it probably makes me a terrible mother, I can’t help but laugh.

“Oh, Calliope,” I say, adjusting the bar on her crib so I can more easily lift her out. She holds her tiny little hands out for me, impatiently gripping the air over and over again. The second I pull her into my arms, her tears stop. She snuggles into me, sniffing, and her fingers close around the fabric of my t-shirt like she’s certain I’m going to leave her again and she’s preparing to fight to hang onto me. It should make me feel sorry for her, but really it just makes me feel like I’m holding the world’s most cuddly Koala bear and I love it.

It’s only been a few hours since I put her to bed, but I’ve missed her.

After sitting in the rocking chair and loving on her for a few moments, I move to the dresser to pick out an outfit for her to wear for the day and begin our morning routine. She babbles and squirms incessantly while I change and dress her, then nearly rockets herself out of her bouncy seat when I set her down in front of the open glass door in my bathroom so I can take a shower. Once we’re both ready for the day, we sit together at the kitchen table for breakfast, which Gail sets in front of us with all the pride of a five star chef. Watching her wait with bated breath for Calliope to take her first bite makes me giggle.

Ever since Callie made the transition from breast milk and formula to solid foods, it’s been our housekeeper’s mission to ensure she would never eat store bought mush in a jar. Everything she’s served is organic, locally sourced, and freshly pureed the morning she eats it. Even the applesauce she has this morning is made with apples from the Trevelyan family orchard, which Gail slow roasted overnight and flavored with freshly ground cinnamon bought from The Souk early this morning. It makes my Greek yogurt and blueberries feel vastly inadequate and, as I tip another spoonful of applesauce into Calliope’s mouth and watch her smile at how good it tastes, I marvel again at how adept my baby seems to be at ensnaring the hearts of anyone she comes in contact with.

“Can Mommy have a bite?” I ask, scraping some applesauce from the outside of the bowl with the spoon. As I bring it to my mouth, her eyes widen with horror.

“No!”

I laugh. Two days after ‘dada’, she spoke her second word, ‘no’, and she’s said very little since. It’s something Christian and the staff like to play with.

Is your name Calliope? No.

Do you love Mommy and Daddy? No.

Are the Seahawks a dominant football force comprised of true American heroes? No.

That last one had Christian laughing harder than I think I’ve ever seen him laugh before, and it may or may not, but also definitely did, start a fight.

I make a sound like an airplane propeller with my lips and then swirl the applesauce around until she closes her mouth over the spoon like a snapping turtle. Once again, her eyes grow wide as she chews and she starts bouncing excitedly in her high chair.

“Is that nummy?”

“No!”

I giggle, as does Gail, who is wiping down the counters in the kitchen, but when I turn to smile at her, Calliope makes a very disgruntled and insistent noise, and tries to shove her fist into the applesauce.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I say, moving her hand away and quickly scooping up another bite with the spoon. This girl can be a disaster when she’s allowed to feed herself and I’d like to keep it to three outfits or under for the day. “Here comes the airplane!”

Calliope screeches with delight as I make the propeller sound again and practically lunges to take her bite.

“And that’s what makes it all worth it,” Gail says, beaming.

I smile at her and when I turn my head, I notice the blinking light on my phone that tells me I’ve missed a notification. It’s nearly ten, which is when Mackensie usually arrives to take over and let me retreat into my office to write, so I half expect it to be a text from her or possibly an email from my literary agent Lydia, who has been demanding to see pages of my new book for weeks. When I pick up my phone though, I see that it’s a notification from PixC, the social media site that Christian bought last year.

a
My stomach tightens when I see the picture, which was taken at a few weeks ago at a celebration for Carrick’s inauguration. It’s a great photo of us, that’s not what makes me uncomfortable about it. It’s the 140,236 “likes” I can see below it. Christian has eight million PixC followers. Eight million strangers see every single thing he posts.

I shake my head, dispelling the dark thoughts that accompany that knowledge, then flip through a few of the other pictures he’s posted. It’s surprising, given how private he usually is, how well he’s taken to social media. Though I suppose part of that could be due to Mia and Kate’s expert tutelage. It’s important for his business and all the charitable efforts we’ve put our weight behind to get exposure, but Christian actually seems to enjoy the attention, or maybe the notoriety, that comes from owning the internet’s 7th largest social media site.

Much to his publicist’s dismay, I’m not any better at PixC than I was at Facebook. I don’t really like posting pictures of my personal life for the world to see, even when it’s really only to publicize Escape. But Christian has found a way to perfectly promote the work GEH is doing, as well as the goals and accomplishments of our foundation, all while painting himself as a loving, devoted family man.

Scattered amongst the pictures of new tech and posed photos with important executives, there are a dozen or so candid portraits of the two of us or him with other members of our family. There’s even one extremely unflattering picture of him in rubber waders, standing knee deep in the Skagit river next to my father with a fishing pole in hand. In fact, the only person that is missing from his feed is Calliope and that’s because, despite Jacqueline’s insistence that other high profile CEOs post pictures with their children to soften their image, I have made it very clear that no photos of our daughter will be made public.

I don’t want anyone to know her face.

The strange but familiar feeling I get that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end crosses over me once more, so I take a deep breath, “like” Christian’s photo, and set my phone down, immediately pushing all thoughts of PixC out of my mind. Thankfully, I hear the door from the garage open, so there’s once again something to distract me.

“Morning, Ana!” Mackensie, our new nanny, calls. I look up and see her enter the kitchen with the oversized bag full of activities she brings for Calliope every day slung over her shoulder.

“Good morning, Kensie. How was your date last night?”

Her face falls and she rolls her eyes. “Awful. Apparently, I’m either really lame or really naive because when he told me that I could come over so we could watch Netflix and chill, I was expecting a movie night.”

I laugh. “Oh, yeah… that’s not what that means.”

“I showed up in sweatpants, Ana. Sweatpants. My underwear was not cute.”

“Well, rule number one, your underwear should always be cute, date or no. Nothing makes a girl feel more confident than knowing she’s sexy as hell underneath her clothes.”

“There are rules?”

“Hundreds of them. Rule number two, literally everything he tells you is a metaphor to get into your panties. Everything. Once Christian told me he wanted to go to London, and I got excited because I’ve never been there. Turns out, he just saw the Agent Provocateur tag on my bra that morning.

She sighs. “God, I’m going to be single forever. I’m just going to have you take over all my dating apps. I can’t be trusted on my own in this volatile world. I feel like that girl from the Sound of Music, sixteen going on seventeen and all that jazz.”

“And you want me to take care of you?”

“Exactly.”

“That’s an amazing idea, except that I’m terrible at dating.”

“Says Mrs. Christian Grey.”

“Really that was more proximity than skill. Had my dorm been three doors down from his instead of directly across the hall, you’d probably be sitting here with someone completely different.”

She gives me a doubtful look. “I don’t think so.”

“It’s true. Every other attempt I’ve ever made at dating has been a cold, hard fail. Just ask Luke.”

“So, you’re telling me that the failure of my love life is actually a success then?” she asks with a laugh. “That because I’m so terrible at all of this it actually means that, one day soon, I’m going to land a billionaire of my own?”

“Based on my experience, that is 100% what is going to happen.”

“Fantastic.”

We both laugh and she lets her bag drop to the floor before turning and holding her hands out for Calliope.

“And how is my favorite little princess this morning?”

Calliope squeals and makes a series of disjointing sounds as she reaches out of her. Kensie scoops her up into her arms, then twirls her around, but as she starts to carry her out of the kitchen, Callie’s happy demeanor vanishes and she begins screaming and struggling to get back to me.

“No! No!”

“Awh, Calli-lily. Mommy just has to go work in the office.” Her face crinkles and she starts to cry, so I get out of my seat and hurry to take her from Kensie. The moment I have her in my arms, she clings to me again, just like she did this morning.

“Oh, sweetheart.” I bounce her and kiss the soft hairs on the side of her head, then sigh with defeat. “You know what, Kens, I think I’m just going to keep her with me while I write today. Can you help me bring the bouncy chair into my office?”

“Are you sure, Ana? I don’t mind. She’ll calm down, eventually.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m leaving this afternoon anyway, so it’s probably better that I spend some time with her. And maybe with some extra time together, I’ll finally get her to say ‘mama’.” I turn to face her, giving her a very serious, purposeful look. “Mama, Calliope. Ma. Ma.”

“No.”

My face falls and I shake my head with dismay. “That hurts, Callie. That hurts.”

Kensie laughs as I run my hand over the top of my baby’s head and kiss her forehead, then leaves for the living room where I’ve left the bouncy seat. Before I carry Callie out of the kitchen, I pause and turn to Gail.

“Luke is coming to pick me up for lunch at about 1:30 this afternoon. Will you let me know when he gets here?”

“Of course, Mrs. Grey.” I smile at her, then bounce Calliope a few times on my hip and make my way to my office.

 

The rest of my morning is a wash, though I’d hardly call it a waste. My laptop remains closed on my desk while I lie on the floor with Callie, playing with blocks, or chasing her around to keep her from pulling herself up on the furniture and sending assorted heavy items tumbling down on top of her. I’m just dragging her away from my bookshelf when my phone rings. It’s Lydia, so I set Calliope back on her activity mat, try to trap her with my leg, and answer the phone.

“Hi, Lydia.”

“Hey, Ana. Have any new pages for me?”

“Soon, I promise.”

She sighs. “You’ve been saying soon for a month now.”

“I know. I’m working on it.”

“This is your time, Ana. You’re at the top of the Hottest Up and Coming Authors list the Times published last month, and not having an exclusivity clause in your HarperCollins contract has had every major publishing house from coast to coast jamming up my phone lines and clogging up my email, begging for the chance to publish your next work.”

I roll my eyes. “That’s because you made that statement a few weeks ago saying my next novel is about Christian.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Not in the way they think.”

“Then it’s brilliant marketing. You are in, my love, and we need to get this book on the shelves as fast as possible so we can capitalize on it. From what you’ve told me, this book is going to be huge. I can feel it. We’re talking sales in the millions and huge movie deals. You’re going to be a household name.”

“Hmm,” I hum back, ignoring the way her vision of success makes my muscles tighten. She’s not pleased with my less than enthused reaction.

“Look, just get me some pages. If it’s writer’s block, maybe there’s something I can do to help. But, I actually called to remind you about The Pacific Northwest Writing Alliance Conference this weekend. I tried to call last week, but you were apparently in the middle of the Indian Ocean.”

“Yeah, Christian surprised me. What does that entail again?”

“A signing. People buy your book, you tell them the inspiring story of how you became published, and the PNWA gets to legitimize itself with a New York Times bestselling author. Win-win-win.”

“I don’t know if my publishing story is inspiring, though. Someone tried to kidnap me and it made HarperCollins see dollar signs.”

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Life’s what you make it, dear, and the only story your fans will believe is the one you tell them. This is a good thing, Ana. Trust me. It’ll help you keep your stock up for a little while longer while you finish your novel.”

“How many people are we talking about?”

“Seven hundred, and you’ll get maybe a hundred.”

“And how solid is my commitment on this?”

“Pretty solid. Why? What’s wrong? You’re not ill are you? Don’t write if you have a fever. Once I had an author send me an entire manuscript he wrote while stuck in bed with the flu and it was like Sherlock Holmes if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was on acid and not a very good writer.”

Despite my best effort, I have to fight not to laugh. “No, Lydia. I’m fine. It’s just… when I agreed to this back in December I thought I’d, you know, be in a different place by now. That’s a lot of people.”

“I thought you wanted to get involved with other authors trying to break into the industry?”

“I do…”

“Well, darling, what do you think the PNWA is all about? This is perfect for you, Ana, trust me. I’ll send you the itinerary this afternoon. In the meantime, get me those pages.”

“Lydia…”

“Bye, Ana!” The phone clicks off before I have a chance to argue further, but as I sit there arguing with myself about professional commitments, there’s a knock on my door and Gail pokes her head inside.

“Ana? Mr. Sawyer is here.”

“Oh, great. I’ll be right out.”

She nods and smiles down at Calliope, but then ducks out of my office and closes the door behind her again. I take a long breath and stare down at my phone again, feeling the now all too familiar feeling of guilt over my quasi-finished novel. This was all so much easier when Dr. Ralston was the only person waiting on my chapters. When I was excited about the prospect of record breaking book sales and the publicity that came along with it. That’s just one more thing Andrew Lincoln took from me. It was on my last book tour that everything really blew up, and I don’t know that I’m ready to jump into this again.

The truth is, my book has been done for weeks. Well, sort of. It’s much lighter than Escape, which is shocking when you consider my frame of mind when I wrote most of it. After my last book, I wanted to focus on love. My love. I tried to capture the essence of what Christian and I have together, everything it could be without all the other horrible things that have happened, and it really did a lot for me. But it’s not ready yet. There’s some intangible thing that feels off about it and I can’t decide if it’s the ending or maybe a character issue… I’m not sure. And I don’t want to give it to anyone until I feel like it’s really, truly finished. And I don’t want to put myself out there again until I’m ready.

With a sigh, I pick up Calliope and carry her from my office to the entrance hall, where Luke is pacing back and forth, waiting for me. His face lights up when he sees us come through the arch from the living room and he immediately reaches out for the baby.

“That’s not Calliope Kate!” He sweeps her into the air, over his head, and blows a raspberry on her tummy. She laughs and, as he bounces her a few times in the air, her mouth rounds out to a perfect little O.

“Will you look at those teeth?” Luke says, bringing her down and resting her on his hip. He gives her a very stern look and puts his index finger in her face. “Alright, the jig is up. Who are you and what have you done with my tiny little baby?”

“That’s her, unfortunately.” I pout and reach out to rub her toes through her socks with my fingers. “I asked her to stop growing but it looks like she’s already made it to her rebellious stage.”

“Well, she’s your kid so that sounds about right.”

I glare at him but when his accusatory look doesn’t falter, I end up laughing. He takes a step forward and wraps me in a one arm hug. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah. Kensie!” My voice echoes through the empty hall and a few seconds later the nanny enters. We pass Calliope off to her and get out of the foyer as quickly as possible, before she can realize what’s happening. But, as I hear her cries following me down the front walk to Luke’s car, my heart sinks.

“Maybe I made a mistake keeping her with me 24/7,” I tell Luke. “Every time Christian or I leave the house, she completely breaks down.”

“Yeah, you’re a terrible mother,” he replies, and even though I know he’s joking, it still makes me feel worse.

“Stop.”

“Oh, come on, Ana. Babies cry when their parents leave. What are you going to do? Never leave your house again?”

I purse my lips together and look back at the front door. Unfortunately, that’s not an option, especially not today. What we’re going to do has to be done.

“Let’s just get out of here,” I tell him, and he nods, unlocks my door, and we both climb inside.

 

The downside of hanging out with Luke while he drives and doesn’t technically work for me anymore, is that we have to listen to his music the entire drive into downtown Seattle. It’s all too heavy guitar and screaming vocals that I can’t even understand, and by the time we’ve reached the correct freeway exit, I’ve had enough.

“Christian asked you to coordinate with Taylor,” I say, willing to throw anything out I can to get him to turn down the god awful noise coming out of his stereo.

“Yeah, T called me this morning.”

“He did?”

“Of course he did. Your husband has made it clear from day one that you’re the team’s number one priority. You think he’s going to let you wander around the city without knowing exactly who you’re with, where you’re going to be, and when?”

“You told him!”

He gives me an exasperated look. “No, Ana. I didn’t tell him. Years of being your CPO has given me a lot of practice lying to Jason Taylor.”

“Well, what did you tell him?”

“That I was taking you to Oh PHO Goodness Saké for lunch. It’s right next door to where we’re going so if someone from Grey’s team happens to drive by, they’ll see my car exactly where it’s supposed to be.” I chew on my lip, so he reaches over and gives me a playful nudge to get me to stop worrying. “We’re fine, Ana. Taylor trusts me. In fact, he asked me if I wanted my job back this morning when we talked.”

“He doesn’t trust Woods?”

Luke shakes his head. “He wouldn’t be anywhere near you if Taylor didn’t trust him.” I hear a change in his tone when he says Taylor’s name, and it peaks my curiosity.

“You don’t trust him?”

The muscle in his jaw ticks. “You know that he let me in without asking any questions and just left me in the foyer all alone? He didn’t even walk you in to meet me. What if I was a stalker or something? He doesn’t know me.”

“You’re on the list, Luke,” I reply, rolling my eyes.

“Regardless, I don’t like trusting you or Calliope to a stranger. I did that once and…” His words cut off and his fingers grip the steering wheel tighter. The silence that fills the car is charged and I can feel Kommer’s unspoken name hanging in the dead air between us. It’s uncomfortable and makes the tall buildings lining the road that now represent everything that went wrong last year feel like they’re closing in on us.

“I don’t blame you, Luke. You know that, right?”

“I know,” he says, though his tone suggests he doesn’t believe me.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“I was on duty, Anastasia. It was my job to get you home safe, and I didn’t do that. If I would have just gone up the elevator with you…”

“Then Gia would have shot you the moment you came through the foyer, and maybe not in the chest that time.”

“But that would have given Grey time to get you back into the elevator.”

“You think I would have left Calliope?” He swallows, and I shake my head. “Kommer was waiting in the garage for us to try and escape. There was no way out, Luke. They corralled us and we fell for it, like sheep being led to the slaughter.”

I pause, letting my words sink in. But, after a long minute of silence, he still doesn’t say anything. I reach over and place my hand on his forearm.

“We’re fine. He was stopped, and we’re all fine. That’s what matters. I don’t blame you.”

“Then… you didn’t ask me to resign because you didn’t feel safe with me anymore?”

“No! God, no! Luke, you’re the only person I do feel safe with, because you’re the only person who doesn’t walk around like this could never happen again. I asked you to resign because I needed you to not be on Christian’s payroll anymore. I need you for this. This is what’s important.”

“More important than your safety?”

“This is about safety. Real safety, for my whole family.”

“If you say so.” He flicks his blinker and pulls over against the curb. Once he kills the engine and removes his keys, he unbuckles his seatbelt and turns a probing look on me. I think he’s giving me one last opportunity to back out, but we’ve come too far now. There is no turning back.

I nod and get out of the car.

The storefront of Second Avenue Cleaners is relatively unassuming. The red brick that makes up the entire building is worn from the rain and crumbling away in several places. The lettering on the window spelling out the company’s name is peeling and faded. It’s not the kind of place I would picture Christian using to have his bespoke Italian shirts cleaned, but I suppose he probably didn’t pick it out himself. Gail would have, and because there are three different cleaners closer to Escala than this place, I assume, despite appearances, they’re the best.

Luke comes around the car, his phone pressed to his ear. “Yeah, we’re here now. Five minutes? Great.” He hangs up and turns to face me. “We’re all set. You really sure you want to do this?”

I nod. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Alright. Let’s go.”

He holds open the door for me and when I step inside, I have to slide against the wall to get to the end of the line. They’re busy, and it weighs on my resolve.

“There are other dry cleaners, Ana,” Luke says, as though he can read my mind. “They’ll all find somewhere else to go.”

I turn to look at him and give him a weak smile. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Slowly, the line moves forward, and inch by inch we make our way to the counter. When it’s finally our turn, the man behind the register doesn’t even look up at me.

“Ticket and name,” he says, stapling the previous customer’s ticket to the receipt in his hand.

“Christian Grey.”

That gets his attention and as he finally looks up, his eyes widen. “Mrs. Grey?”

“Yes.”

“I-I’m sorry,” he stammers. “I didn’t recognize you. Usually your housekeeper… You shouldn’t have had to wait, I apologize. I’ll get these personally. One moment, please.”

I give him a tight smile as he turns and disappears into the back, then look over at Luke. He nods once to reassure me, so I take a deep breath and try to hold onto my waning confidence.

“Here you are, Mrs. Grey,” the shop owner says, sounding much more sure of himself as he hands me the bag containing Christian’s freshly laundered shirts. “No problems to note, they came out perfect.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“It’s absolutely my pleasure. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

I swallow, and feel Luke step closer to me. He’s got my back and, for as much preparation as we’ve put into this, I should feel invincible. But in reality, I can’t stop shaking.

“Yes, actually,” I say after an awkwardly long pause. “Y-you could hand me your keys.”

The broad, fake grin on his face falters and his brow creases with confusion. “I’m sorry?”

“Your keys. The ones that go to the shop. I’m going to need the ones for the front door, the back door, the office… any keys you have that are for the store.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Grey. I don’t understand.”

Calm down, Ana.

“I uh… I–”

There’s a jingle behind me as the door opens, and the footsteps of the man who enters seem to echo in the tiny, linoleum covered reception area.

All according to plan.

“Mr. Kozlowski?” the man who entered asks.

The shop owner raises an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“My name is Peter Brown, and I’m a process server with the King County Police Department. You’re being served with an eviction notice.”

“Eviction notice? What do you mean? I’ve paid my lease…”

“Through February,” Luke agrees. “But the building has been sold and the new owner has terminated your lease.”

“New owner?”

I nod. “Me.”

“You?” He picks up the eviction notice and starts to scan through it, and the more he reads, the more he starts unconsciously shaking his head. When he’s finished, the color drains from his face and there’s a sense of confusion in his eyes. “Why?”

I want to scream at him. Why?

“Because you sold Andrew Lincoln information about my family.”

“No,” he says immediately, and starts to shake his head with even more vigor. “No. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The blatant lie that is his denial lights an angry fire inside of me, and suddenly, all my nerves vanish.

“Mr. Kozlowski, I know you must think I’m young and very naive, but please don’t treat me like I’m stupid.  From June 6th 2010 until July 30th 2011, you sent information to him detailing every time one of my husband’s staff stepped into your store. You passed information from Anthony Kommer to Gia Matteo, and vice versa, over a similar amount of time. And on more than one occasion, but specifically on March 13th 2011, you provided a secure meeting space for the three of them to talk so that my husband’s people wouldn’t find out about it.”

“Uh–I…” He stands there, stammering, and the panic in his eyes is all the confirmation I need. Truth be told, I never needed him to admit it anyway. Luke provided me with everything I needed to know weeks ago.

“You have until March 1st to vacate the premises,” I tell him.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t do anything illegal. I merely confirmed Mr. Grey used my services, and I passed papers that I never read between two customers. I never aided him in anything he did against your family.”

I narrow my eyes. “Is that what you tell yourself so you can sleep at night?”

“Mrs. Grey, please. You can’t evict me for a personal vendetta.”

“No, you’re right. On paper, you’re being evicted because the Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation is transforming this building into a shelter for battered women and children who are attempting to escape domestic abuse. But I came here today because I want you to know the real reason. I want you to know that I know what you did and that I’m taking your business because of it.”

“Mrs. Grey–”

“You have until March 1st.”

“That’s only a week.”

“Oh dear.” I place my hand over my heart with fake sympathy. “Then I suggest you make your arrangements sooner rather than later.” Leaving him staring at me, gaping, I turn and march purposely for the door. But, after taking only a few steps, I stop and face him again. “Oh, and I wouldn’t bother looking for another commercial space for your business. I suspect that immigration will be paying you a visit in a few days to discuss the status of your green card. In fact, if I were you, I’d prepare to leave the country.”

“What?” There’s a sharp, nervous lilt to his voice that I ignore as I turn again and step out of his store. Luke follows right behind me, placing a protective hand on my lower back and getting me away from the building as quickly as possible.

“Hey,” he says once we’re outside and out of earshot. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I reply, and for the first time in a really long time I actually mean it. There’s a kind of adrenaline rush that accompanies the potent sense of vindication I get knowing that, finally, something has actually been done. That at least one of the people who were responsible for what happened to my husband last summer, and who made it possible for my daughter to be put in harm’s way, have gotten what they deserve. After months of terror, I feel like I actually have some kind of  real agency in my own life. Power. It’s a kind of high, in its own way, and it’s liberating. I feel like I could conquer the world.

“You’re sure?” he checks again.

“I’m great, Luke. Really.” I look over my shoulder at the Pho restaurant we parked in front of, then gesture to the front door with my head. “Come on. We should get something to eat. We still have a little over an hour before you need to drop me off at Flynn’s office and Christian will be suspicious if I’m hungry later.”

He frowns. “Why aren’t you telling Grey about what you’re doing?”

“Because he doesn’t need to know.” I turn away and start to walk to the restaurant, but Luke reaches out and takes my hand to get me to stop.

“Ana…”

“Did he tell me about Plan B?” I ask, my voice sharper than I mean for it to be.

“Well, no…”

“No, he didn’t. He didn’t tell me that he was using my father to try and get to Gresham. He didn’t tell me that he created a huge, fake wedding in an attempt to trap the man who was coming after us. He didn’t even tell me about you until years after he hired you as my CPO. So you’ll forgive me for keeping this one secret from him.”

He stares back at me blankly, unaffected by my increasingly defensive and accusatory tone. He knows me too well to let me try and shift the blame or change the subject. He stands there waiting for the real reason, and his patient gaze sends that same hot flash of guilt from this morning coursing through me once again.

“He’ll try to stop me,” I admit, my voice much weaker now. “If he finds out what I’m doing, he’ll try and stop me.

“Ana, that’s because–”

“I don’t sleep, Luke. I can’t go more than a few minutes without thinking about it. I am scared all the time, every day, and the only thing that makes it so I can even breathe is this. Doing something. I can’t let him stop me. I am going to ensure that everyone I love is safe and that nothing like what happened last summer will ever happen again. No matter what.”

He presses his lips together. “Ana… maybe you should give therapy a real try. It could help.”

I shake my head. “I spend enough time reliving what happened. I don’t want to talk about it, I want to forget about it. And the only way I’m ever going to be able to forget is if I know that it won’t ever happen again. The only way I can be sure of that is if every one of our enemies is dealt with. I won’t be a bystander anymore, Luke. This needs to happen.”

He takes a long, deep breath that is released in a tortured sigh. Looking away from me, his eyes examine the dilapidated building face next door and after a few seconds of silence, he starts to nod. “Alright. I guess it’s just a dry cleaner.”

“Yeah.”

“But just because I’m not your bodyguard anymore doesn’t mean I don’t care that you’re safe, Ana. I won’t help you if this gets dangerous.”

“That’s fair.”

“Good, then… let’s eat. You’re right, I’m starving.” I smile and take his hand, pulling him with me as we make our way inside.

Oh PHO Goodness Saké is a tiny, cramped space with a long counter where we have to stand in line to order before we try to find a table. Everything on the menu looks phenomenal to me, but Luke doesn’t seem too enthused. He’s never really been an adventurous kind of eater and apparently, Vietnamese food is on his list of too exotic.

“It’s just beef broth,” I tell him as he eyes the contents of the bowl a woman passing us is carrying with a grimace. “It’s like Top Ramen with meat and vegetables but five thousand times better.”

“I don’t know. It looks kind of…”

“Anastasia Steele?”

Both Luke and I turn in the direction my name is being called, but I don’t recognize the man who we find staring at me. He’s handsome and dressed in a crisp, black suit. For a moment, I think he must be one of Christian’s business associates and that I’ve simply forgotten his face in the seemingly endless parade of CEOs and executives I’ve been introduced to in the past year or so. But since he addressed me as Steele, not Grey, that doesn’t seem likely.

“Um… yes?”

“I’m sorry,” he says, smiling. “You probably have no idea who I am. My name is Scott Wallace, I’m the president of the New York division of Greenwich Small Press. We’re a bi-coastal publishing house, nothing too big.”

He’s being modest. Perhaps he doesn’t know the full extent of my publishing connections, but I am fully aware of Greenwich’s presence in the Seattle publishing world. When I was helping to restructure SIP right after it was acquired by GEH, GSP was our biggest competitor when it came to landing new authors. In fact, at that time, it was the most prominent small publishing house on the entire west coast. That is, until the newly rebranded Grey Publishing took off.

“Oh, hi.” I shake the hand he offers me. “You’re a long way from home.”

“Yeah.” He laughs. “Can I just tell you, Escape is absolutely fantastic. I was blown away.”

I blush, but smile gratefully. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Your novel has completely changed the landscape of Literary Fiction. I can’t tell you how many copycat manuscripts I’ve read over the past few months. Everyone is dying to be the next Anastasia Steele.”

“Grey, actually. But, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.”

“Grey, right. I read that you were married.” He turns and extends a hand to Luke. “Scott Wallace. How do you do, Mr. Grey?”

“Just fine,” Luke replies, a huge smile stretching across his face.

“This isn’t my husband,” I say, chastising Luke with a sideways glance. “This is my very good friend, Luke Sawyer.”

“Best friend,” he corrects me. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wallace.”

“Likewise.” He smiles at Luke, but quickly diverts his attention back to me. “So, Anastasia, are you working on anything new?”

“Yes. I’m actually almost finished with my second novel. Well, first…” I shake my head, and start over. “It’s the first in a new series I’m working on. Something completely different from Escape, but still really personal.”

“I’m sure it’s phenomenal. I gotta say, you’re kind of a legend around here.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d go that far.”

“No. Don’t get me wrong, your writing is amazing, but I mean for what you did for Grey Publishing. We used to be top dog in Seattle and then some Harvard intern swoops in with a whole new business strategy for GP and starts scooping up our authors left and right.”

“You don’t say.”

“It’s been a bit of a setback for us. Our CEO just fired the head of the Seattle division and now I’m running ragged trying to manage both branches. You don’t still work for GP?”

“Oh, no. I’m just focusing on family right now. And writing, of course.”

“Well, my boss is breathing down my neck about turning the west coast division around and recouping that revenue hit we took last quarter. I need to hire a new Seattle branch president and I’ve seen first hand what you’re capable of. If you’re interested, I’d love to have you come in and interview.”

“Oh, uh… that’s very generous, but I’m purely on the writing side of the industry now.”

“That’s disappointing.” He reaches into his jacket, pulls out his wallet, and hands me his business card. “Well, if you change your mind, my cell and office number is on there. Feel free to call me anytime. We could really use a mind like yours, Mrs. Grey, and we’ll move mountains to make this work out.”

I take the card, but try to make it clear in my tone that I’m not interested. “Thank you. Good luck, Mr. Wallace.”

“Next!”

I look over my shoulder at the very impatient Vietnamese woman waiting to take our order, then pivot towards her as I face Mr. Wallace again.

“Enjoy your lunch, Anastasia,” he says.

“Thanks. You too.” He shakes my hand again, and I slip his card into my purse, almost instantly forgetting about it as I turn to order.

**Christian’s PixC Photo is courtesy of the @shadesofifty twitter page

Next Chapter

Chapter 02

02152017_rain-_1328144-780x460

Getting back to Seattle Sunday night is like the hangover after a really long night of drinking. Most of the journey home was fine. Christian and I snuck off to the bedroom at the back of the plane twice and spent the rest of the trip cuddled up on the long, leather sofa in the middle of the plane, talking and laughing with one another. It seems like the connection we revived in the Maldives has real lasting power, but by the time we begin our descent towards SeaTac we’re exhausted from the 18 hour flight and hungry for real food cooked in our own kitchen, rather than whatever Natalia has managed to heat up. The moment the plane dips below the thick cover of clouds, our windows are splattered in rain drops and when I lean over to look out at the familiar Seattle skyline I can’t help but think how dreary the entire city looks compared to the beautiful paradise we’ve lived in for the last week.

“Of course it’s raining,” Christian grumbles. I turn and raise an eyebrow at him.

“You like the rain.”

“Not as much as I like laying out on the beach with you. I’m not ready to go back to the real world yet. I liked our bubble.”

I hum in agreement and cuddle into his side. “Me too. But I can’t wait to get back to Calliope. Do you think she missed us?”

“No,” he says, then laughs. “She’s had Mackensie and Gail with her every second of the day and Kate and Elliot with her in the evenings. I won’t be surprised if we find out my mom came and stayed at least one night too. I bet she’s been spoiled rotten since the moment we stepped out that door.”

I shift beneath his arm so I can give him an accusatory look. “More spoiled than she is with her daddy?”

“I don’t spoil her.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes, and he narrows his at me.

“I like to think of it as showing her what she’s worth. One day, she won’t be so little anymore.” He pauses, and the gray of his irises darkens. “And then the boys will come.”

“Oh, the horror!”

“Mmm, but by then I’ll have set her standards so impossibly high that no teenage boy will ever be able to live up to them, and then she’ll stay my sweet, innocent little girl forever.”

“Ah, the Raymond Steele strategy. It’s foolproof. Well, until she moves out of the house and sleeps with the first man she sees.”

His face falls and he sits up in his seat, removing his arm from around my shoulders. “Stop it.”

I laugh, then glance up at Natalia, who has come by to pick up our empty glasses in preparation for landing. Strangely, the closer we get to the ground the harder the rain seems to fall. It comes down in droves that are very uncharacteristic for late February. When the wheels of the plane finally touch down at SeaTac, they send a wave of water so high into the air that it obstructs my view of the airport.

Christian is the first to stand after we’ve stopped and he reaches into the seat across from us to pick up my bag before taking my hand and leading me to the exit. Stephan, our pilot, waits at the door. Christian thanks him for a smooth flight, while I gratefully take the umbrella Natalia offers me and step out onto the wet stairs. The SUV is already waiting on the tarmac with the wiper blades on high. As Christian and I hurry across the water logged pavement, the door opens and two men climb out.

“Did you enjoy your trip, sir?” Taylor asks, reaching for the bag in Christian’s hand.

“Yes, very much. Thank you. I trust you used your time off well?”

“Very well. I actually spent some time with Ray… er, Mr. Steele. Traded war stories and spent some time outdoors. He’s an incredible man.”

“You’re not recruiting him,” I say as his new partner opens the back door for me. I give Taylor a stern look, then turn to my own CPO. “Thank you, Woods.”

“My pleasure, Mrs. Grey. Welcome home.”

I give him a quick smile, then climb into the car, sliding all the way across the back seat to leave room for Christian. After we’re closed inside, Christian immediately pulls out the phone he’s actually managed to ignore for the past six days and I turn to watch our security team take our luggage from the flight crew and start loading it into the back.

It took me a long time to warm up to Woods, despite the fact that he’s one of the more personable men Taylor hired after the security team rehaul last fall. At first I thought it was because I would never be able to trust an outside security hire again. It was Kommer, after all, who let Gia Matteo and Andrew Lincoln into my apartment that night and I wasn’t about to make the same mistake with another CPO I didn’t know. But months have past and now that I’ve grown used to Woods’ constant presence and benign, albeit slightly over helpful, demeanor, I think my hesitance with him is because there simply isn’t, nor will there ever be, a replacement for Luke Sawyer.

“You alright?” Christian asks, glancing up at me. I turn and give him a tight smile.

“Yeah, just anxious to get home.” The front doors open and Taylor and Woods climb into the SUV. Once Taylor turns the key in the ignition and shifts the car into drive, I lean forward between their seats. “Taylor, how is Calliope doing?”

He gives me a rare, warm smile. “She’s perfect, Mrs. Grey. She’s been an angel all week.”

“Good.” I grip his bicep to show my gratitude for his placation, then lean back into my seat and let out a sigh of relief. Christian reaches over and places his hand on the inside of my thigh.

“You see? I told you, you have nothing to worry about, baby. We’re safe. No one is coming for us.”

I nod. “Yeah, you’re right.” Leaning over, he places a soft kiss on my cheek, then nuzzles me with the tip of his nose.

 

The dark, very wet drive home seems to exacerbate the jet lag that the eleven hour time difference between here and the Maldives has left us with. Christian spends the first twenty minutes or so responding to emails on his phone but, eventually, he too slumps back into his seat and rests his head on top of mine.

“I don’t even think I’ll be able to stay awake for dinner,” I say as my eyelids start to droop. Christian nods his head.

“No. I say we put the baby down and then go straight to bed.”

“Agreed.”

“Actually,” Taylor interjects. “I wouldn’t count on that if I were you.”

I turn to look up in the rear view mirror just over Taylor’s head. “Why?”

He stops at the gate to our house without answering me, then rolls down his window and punches the code into the box next to the driveway. It takes several seconds for the gate to swing open, but once it does I look through the front windshield and immediately have my answer. The driveway is packed full of cars. Kate and Elliot are here, obviously, but so are Grace, Carrick, Mia, and my father.”

Christian groans. “Great. What do you want to bet Elliot is behind this?”

I laugh, but it’s cut off by a deep, long yawn. “A lot.”

The car comes to a stop and when Taylor and Woods step out to come and open the back doors, Christian places a hand beneath my jaw and tilts my lips up to his. “I really loved being with you this week.”

“Mmm, and every week.”

“Forever.” He smiles and then kisses me again before entangling his fingers with mine and sliding out of the SUV.

The one good thing about our entire family being here to greet us is the delicious smell that hits us the moment we come through the front door. Some wonderful soul has cooked for us and the sounds of conversation that float into the entryway from the living room carry the overwhelming comfort of home. Quickly abandoning my coat and purse by the door, I hurry past the stairs towards the sound of Calliope’s over excited shrieking and our family’s responding laughter.

“Hey!” I call, coming around the corner. Everyone turns in my direction just as Christian appears behind me, and Calliope’s mouth drops open, as if she’s in shock.

“Dada?”

And just like that, as if she’s said it a hundred times before, Calliope’s first word rings clear and definite around us. Everyone gasps, and we stand there frozen like we all need a moment to be sure we really heard what we think we did.

“Hey, Princess,” Christian says, breaking the silence and moving forward to take her out of his mother’s hands.

“God damn it,” Elliot says, deflating with disappointment as he recedes into the couch. “Callie, what are you doing? I thought we were cool.” Kate breaks down into laughter and I raise an eyebrow at her.

“What?”

“Elliot has spent this entire week trying to get her to say uncle. He was determined to make sure that her first wasn’t dada.”

“And she’s betrayed me!”

“Good.” Christian laughs, then rubs the tip of his nose gently against Calliope’s. “She really is my daughter.”

“Okay. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” I reach my hands out for Calliope and Christian lets out a long sigh.

“Do you want to go to mama? Ma-ma?” He elongates the word, breaking it down by each syllable in hopes of getting her to repeat it, but she doesn’t. She does, however, turn in his arms so that she can reach for me.

“So she knows that I’m Mama,” I say, wrapping my hands around her sides and pulling her into me. “She just won’t say it.”

“She will,” Christian assures me, but the grin on his face doesn’t make me feel any better. Of course “dada” was her first word.

“That’s okay.” I turn her and point to Christian. “Who’s that, Calliope?”

“Dada,” she says.

“That’s right! That’s dada!” I wrap her tighter in my arms and inhale her warm scent off the top of her head. “God, I missed you.”

“And she missed you,” Kate says, using Elliot’s help to heave herself off the couch. “She did fine for the most part, but nights were a little rough. She missed having you tuck her in at bedtime.”

“Oh, baby…” I lean in to kiss Calliope’s forehead, and she responds by tangling her tiny little fingers in my hair.

“Look at your tan though,” Kate says. “You look amazing. I kind of hate you right now.”

“Oh, please,” I reply, rolling my eyes. “You’re glowing. How’s my goddaughter?”

She lets out a long sigh and places a hand over her very round baby bump. “Active. She was doing Tae Bo last night when I was trying to sleep.”

“Awh.” Shifting Calliope to my hip so that I can hold her with only one arm, I reach out to pull Kate into a side hug and rub her shoulder sympathetically.

“Well, I’m just glad you’re back,” Grace says, getting up and coming around the couch to hug us both. “Were the Maldives everything you hoped they would be?”

“It was beautiful,” I tell her, but when she turns to look at Christian he gives her a tight, dismissive smile and breaks eye contact. Grace visibly deflates, but when she turns back to look at me, she’s smiling again.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time. You deserve it, Ana.”

“Yes, she does,” my dad says, reaching out to shake Christian’s hand before moving past both him and Grace to pull Calliope and I into a hug.

“Daddy, I can’t believe you drove all the way here from Montesano. You’ll get home so late.”

“That’s fine. We wanted to see you, kiddo. Our visits are becoming much too few and far between.”

“Yeah, we really need to get out to you more often,” I say, hugging him back. “Wait… we?”

“Anastasia!” I turn and have to fight to keep my smile from faltering when I see my dad’s new girlfriend coming towards us, pulling an apron over her head.

“Kim! I didn’t know you were here…”

“Well your daddy’s been talking about you so much I finally told him we had to come up here and see you. Besides, I thought it would be nice for you to come home to a good meal. Lord knows you haven’t had anything home cooked in over a week.”

“You really didn’t have to do that. We have… staff.”

“No you don’t,” Elliot says. “Gail has sunday’s off.”

“Oh, well… still. We could have–”

“It’s my pleasure, Anastasia. Really. Now, come and get it. Dinner’s ready.” She beams and turns back towards the kitchen, and while the rest of our family moves past us, giving both Christian and I hugs as they go, I have to take a moment to compose myself.

“Be nice,” Christian says, leaning over to whisper in my ear so no one will be able to hear him.

“I didn’t say anything,” I hiss back, defensively. He raises and eyebrow at me, then reaches out to brush his thumb over Calliope’s cheek before following the others to the dining room.

“Tell me to be nice,” I grumble to Calliope under my breath. “Christian Grey is in no position to tell anyone to be nice.” There’s no sign of agreement on my baby’s face, only enraptured interest as she continues to play with my hair.

Really, there’s no reason for me to harbor any ill feelings towards Kim. She’s been perfectly lovely every time we’ve met. Though… maybe a little too nice. Who’s that happy all the time anyway? No one. I know she makes my dad happy, I’ve seen it in his eyes over and over again for months, but that doesn’t make me feel any better either. Not that I don’t want him to be happy, I do, but… I’m used to stepdads. Ray, Stephen, Bob… Since my mom left I’ve always been the only girl in my dad’s life and I liked it like that.

Besides, the loss of my mother is still a wound too sensitive for me to even think about most of the time. The idea of a stepmom, someone who would, no matter how insignificantly, be replacing her in my life… I’m not ready for that. I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for that.

I’m a rational girl. I know that him finding someone to spend time with is not a personal attack against me and now that I have a family of my own and hardly ever see him anymore, it’s selfish of me to expect that won’t find someone new to fill the emptiness in his life. But knowing that as certainly as I do doesn’t make it hurt any less. He’s my dad, and it’s hard to process that I’m not the most important person in his life anymore.

“Dada,” Calliope says again, and I give her a smile that I hope she thinks is genuine.

“Yeah, Dada. Let’s go find Dada.” Lifting her higher up on my hip, I kiss her cheeks and then march forward into the dining room to face my dad and Kim like I’m going off to war.

 

The atmosphere around the table is light and warm. Kim has made a very traditional sunday dinner with roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, and rolls. Christian’s already put Calliope’s high chair between his seat and mine, and while I lower her down into it, he puts a dollop of mashed potatoes on her tray and then takes a small portion of chicken and peas into the kitchen to run through the food processor. While he’s away, I pick up his plate and fill it with a little bit of everything on the table.

“Oh my god, will you look at her making a plate for him?” Kate says. “You two are so cute, it kind of makes me want to yack.”

I roll my eyes. “Takes notes, this is called survival. Once the baby comes, you do everything as a team, or you fail.”

“Yeah, babe,” Elliot says, leaning towards her and placing a hand over her bump. “You’re going to have to actually act like you love me sometimes.”

“Well, someone better call the Academy because even pretending to like you would be a performance worthy of an Oscar.” Elliot laughs then pinches her chin between his thumb and finger so he can tilt her lips up to his.

“And you say Ana and Christian make you wanna puke,” Mia says. Everyone around the table laughs.

I scoot my chair as closely to Calliope’s high chair as possible and pick up her spoon, but she simply reaches down, picks up a fist full of mashed potatoes, and stuffs the whole thing in her mouth. She turns to look at me then, with a blob of white slowly oozing out of her mouth and I smile at her. Shaking my head, before scooping the excess away with the spoon, I wait for her to swallow before giving her more.

“Oh, Christian,” Elliot says, finally pulling away from Kate once his brother returns to the table and places a small bowl full of chicken and pea mash in front of the baby. “Andrea came by a few days ago. She dropped off something for some new project GEH is working on. She said Welch needs you to look over it as soon as possible.”

“In my office?” Christian asks, but when Elliot nods I reach over to hold him in his seat.

“It can wait until after dinner. Or maybe until tomorrow when you’re actually back at work.” He lets out a slightly irritated sigh, but settles back down in his chair again.

“Something exciting?” my dad asks. Christian nods.

“Very, actually. It’s kind of my own little pet project.”

“Oh?” Grace interjects, intrigued.

“Yeah. It’s a little outside of our business model so Ros tried to convince me not to invest too heavily in it, especially with it being so experimental. But I’m passionate about it. Business is going well and Ros has a firm hand on the acquisition load, I think it’s a good time to work with my R&D department and see if we can make it happen. Indulge a little.”

“Indulge?” Kate asks. “What are you doing?”

He grimaces. “You’ll think it’s stupid.”

“I will not.” He gives her a pointed look that says he doesn’t believe her, so she rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest. “You really think I’m going to write off something Christian Grey wants to explore in the business world as stupid?”

“Ros did.”

“Well, Ros thinks everything you do is stupid,” I say, pulling Calliope’s hands back down to her tray to keep her from rubbing food in her hair.

“Just tell us,” Elliot says. “It’s not like any of us would be able to steal your ideas. And if it really is stupid, you can either prove us wrong or we can all say we told you so, and that would be a treat for everyone.” He laughs, but Christian shakes his head.

“I’m under no illusions that this could be the biggest failure of my career. But if my team can do it, if we can pull it off, we’ll change the world and I’ll become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on the planet.”

“Doing?” Carrick presses him.

He takes a big breath and straightens in his chair. “With the expansion of our manufacturing division in Taiwan, we’ve poured a lot of resources and emphasis into ship building. It’s inspired me more than anything I’ve done in a long time because I’ve always been fascinated with ships and speed versus size. It made me want to push the envelope, find out what else we could be building. Then Lamborghini released the specs for the new Gallardo last fall and as I was looking into buying it, it was like lightning struck.”

“So you’re building sports cars?” Mia asks.

“I like to think of it as evolving sports cars.”

Elliot raises an eyebrow, actually intrigued. “Evolving how?”

“Ecological sustainability. I’ve been buying luxury supercars for years, and while every year they get a little faster or a little sleeker, not much has changed in the mechanics. As much as I love them, they’re impractical and wasteful, and it’s getting worse. The Lamborghini in the garage is faster than my Bugatti, but the gas mileage is abysmal. It got me thinking about clean energy creation, which I thought for years was the next big frontier of technological innovation. I started wondering if it could ever be possible to build a vehicle as fast and powerful as the world’s best sports cars, but that produced no emissions and left absolutely no ecological footprint.”

“So… fuel efficiency?” Elliot asks, and Christian’s eyes seem to twinkle when he shakes his head.

“It started that way. But it’s so much more now.”

Elliot’s brow crinkles with confusion. “Different how?”

“What if it didn’t require fuel at all? What if this house didn’t, or GEH? What if we could power the world without any kind of combustion? What if we could create an energy source that was self sustaining and that never needed to be replaced?”

“Like, solar?”

“Or fusion.”

That makes Elliot actually fall back into his seat and the look he gives Christian is dubious at best. “You’re talking about perpetual motion.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

He shakes his head. “That’s impossible. The laws of friction…”

“Have been a challenge,” Christian interrupts him. “But I’ve recruited some of the best nuclear physicists and engineers in the world, and we’ve generated real interest in seeing this project through. In fact, those documents Andrea delivered should be a grant approval from NASA.”

“And all this so you can have a faster sports car?” Kate asks. Christian smiles.

“My company may change the world, Kate. Maybe even the future of space exploration. It’s best to focus on that rather than my own possibly selfish motivations.”

Elliot shakes his head again. “It doesn’t matter what your motivations are, it can’t done.”

“I don’t like the word can’t,” Christian says, but Elliot is undeterred.

“I studied this at MIT. Newton’s Law of Motion states that constant velocity can only exist if there is no external unbalanced force acting against it, and you simply can’t eliminate friction from momentum. You’re not the first person to dream this dream, but it can’t be done. I’m sorry, Christian, you’re on a wild goose chase.”

“We’ll see.”

“I believe in you, baby,” I say, reaching past Calliope to wrap my hand under his elbow. He smiles and leans back so that he can kiss me.

“Thank you. I’m glad someone does.” I giggle, and the turn to Carrick, who looks just as glad as the rest of us that Christian and Elliot are done debating the laws of physics, which none of us really understand.

“So how’s the new house coming, Elliot?” Carrick asks.

Elliot takes a deep breath, as though he needs to calm himself before he answers. “It’d be going great if someone could make a decision and stick to it.”

Kate frowns. “This is going to be our forever home. I just want it to be perfect.”

“Well, I’ve completely gutted and redone our bathroom three times now.”

“And it’s so much better now than it was before.” She turns to me, beaming. “I can’t wait to show you my closet. It’s gigantic and I had them design it like a Victoria’s Secret store with pink walls, black furniture, and crystal chandeliers. Bougie as fuck.”

I laugh, then pick up a napkin to wipe Calliope’s face, and Christian turns to Mia.

“Speaking of houses, my realtor sent me a few apartment listings in New York for you to look at. We found one only a few blocks from campus that I think you’re going to love.”

Mia swallows and seems to shrink in her seat a little. “Actually… I’m not going to Juilliard.”

“What?” Carrick snaps, turning sharp eyes on his daughter, and she cringes.

“Yeah. I–uh, I rescinded my application.”

Grace looks horrified. “Why?”  

“I’ve decided that it’s just… not the right choice for me.”

Carrick lets out a long sigh, then pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Good lord, not this again.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“Mia, you’re going to college. This isn’t a discussion, it’s what’s going to happen.”

She nods. “I know, I’m not saying that I’m not going to college, I’m just not going to Juilliard. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the past few years and nearly every one of them is because of how selfishly and relentlessly I’ve pursued that school. I compromised a lot of my own values to get there and honestly, after last year with the secrets and the cutting… I realized that I’ve lost myself because of it. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like the person who looked back at me. So, I called Juillard and asked them to revoke my application and, instead, I applied to Harvard.”

“Harvard?” Grace repeats, and Mia nods.

“Yeah. It’s where all the people who I do respect go. Dad, Ana, Kate… even Christian. Sort of. I’ve decided that ballet just isn’t the most important thing to me anymore. I don’t want to let blind ambition rule my life. I want to feel like I’m living for a purpose. I want to help people. So, I’m going to Harvard to study pre-law, like Dad. And one day, when I become a lawyer just like him, I’m going to dedicate my career to advocating for people who can’t fight for themselves. To giving a voice to people who have none.”

Christian frowns. “But… ballet has always been your passion, Mia. It’s part of who you are.”

“And Harvard has a dance team. I mean, it’s not like I’m trying to get into some underfunded state school. Harvard’s ballet program is actually amazing. I’ll train there while I go to school and, hopefully, still be able to live out my dream of dancing in front of packed theater in New York one day. But you and Dad were right. Ballet has a shelf life. I could be injured tomorrow or in school and my career would be over before it even started. This way, if the worst happens or even if I just get too old to dance they way I’d have to in order to stay relevant, I’ll still have purpose. I can move onto something meaningful.”

“Harvard isn’t a joke, Meems,” Elliot says. “It’s not just something you can do on the side while you dance and use as a fall back. It’s hard work and you should really think about that before you throw Juilliard away.”

“I’ve already thought about it, over and over again. This is what I want.”

“Well, that’s great, Mia,” Carrick says. “But it’s February. The application deadlines have past…”

“I applied last fall. I didn’t want to say anything until I knew because I didn’t know if my SAT score was going to be good enough to get me in, but I think the essay I wrote swayed the admissions board because I got my acceptance letter last week. I was just waiting until we were all together to say something. I’m going to Harvard next year.”

The corner of Carrick’s mouth ticks upwards as he unconsciously starts to smile. “You were accepted?”

Mia nods.

“Sweetheart, that’s amazing!”

“Congratulations, Meems!” I get up out of my seat to come around the table to hug her, and as I wrap her in my arms the uncertainty on her face melts away and she starts to grin. Kate wobbles over next and squeals with excitement as she wraps Mia in a huge bear hug, and Christian pulls Mia up and out of her seat when Kate finally releases her.

“I’m so proud of you,” he tells her, squeezing her tightly.

“Thanks,” she says, and when she settles back into her chair, she turns to look at her father. “So, I guess now would be a good time to tell you that I have to go to Cambridge the first weekend of March. There’s a big freshman orientation thing that everyone is required to come to.”

“Oh my god, I remember that!” Kate says. “Ana, do you remember that weekend? It was a blast. That’s when we picked Grays for our dorm.”

“When you picked Grays,” I remind her. “I wanted to live in Hollis.”

“Well, I’m very glad you didn’t,” Christian says, looking over at me and smiling.

“Yeah, but requesting dorm assignments is only part of it,” Mia says. “There’s a ton of stuff that we have to do that weekend and I can’t miss it.”

“The first weekend of March?” Carrick asks dubiously as he turns to look at Grace. She frowns.

“That’s only two weeks away, I have surgeries planned…”

“Yeah, I can’t either,” Carrick says. “Not until the legislative session ends. I have three outstanding appointments with the city council.”

“I’d take you, but Kate’s in her third trimester and I’m not going to fly all the way across the country from her,” Elliot says. “She could go into labor…”

“I’ll take her,” I interject, and Christian turns to me in surprise.

“You?”

“Sure. We’ll have a great time. I haven’t been back since graduation and I’ve missed it. A lot, actually. And I know Cambridge really well, so I can show her all my favorite places to eat or hang out. When she’s busy with orientation, I can stay at the house and write. That’s why we kept it, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. Well, I can rearrange some things in my schedule and…”

“Oh, no,” Mia says, shaking her head. “Who invited you, Christian? Harvard Alum only.”

He glares at her, but I nod in agreement. “I mean, she makes a fair point.”

“You want to go alone?”

“She won’t be alone,” Mia says. “She’ll be with me. It’ll be fun, just the two of us. Like a girl’s weekend.”

“Yeah. Fun,” I repeat. “Besides, I don’t think anyone here is as used to travelling from Seattle to Cambridge as I am. It’ll actually feel kind of normal and normal is good.”

“Alright,” Christian concedes. “Then I’ll schedule the jet to take you.”

“Yes!” Mia exclaims. “No offense, but I thought going with my parents would be kind of lame. But with Ana, Ah! I’m so excited!”

“Me too.” I wink at her, and as she continues to celebrate her Ivy League acceptance with her parents, and even my father. Christian leans over to whisper in my ear.

“You’re sure you’re ready for this?”

“Yeah. Actually, I kind of think spending time alone with Mia is going to be great.”

“Good.” He kisses my cheek. “I love that you love my family so much.”

“You mean our family?”

He smiles, and tilts my face so that he can press his lips into mine, but it’s not long before our perfectly innocent kiss is interrupted by Elliot.

“Alright, alright. Once Ana and Christian start making out it’s time to go.”

“Yeah,” Kate agrees. “I love you guys, but me and the little miss need to go to bed.”

“And we’ve got a long drive home,” my dad adds. “Can we help you clean up?”

“Oh, god no.” I wave him off. “You made dinner. And… thank you, Kim. It was delicious.”

She smiles. “It was my pleasure, Annie. Come see us soon?”

I grit my teeth as I return her smile, trying not to let my displeasure at her using my father’s nickname for me show through. “Of course.”

“See you later, kid.” My dad leans down and kisses the top of my head, then scoops Calliope up and blows a raspberry on her tummy. She shrieks with joy but immediately turns and starts to reach for Christian.

“Dada, dada.”

“Well, this is going to be fun,” I sigh. “I’m glad she can now vocalize her preference for Christian. As if her screams every time he left the house weren’t enough, now she can actually tell everyone how much more she loves him than me. It’s good. Real good.”

Christian laughs as he takes Calliope from my dad, and shakes his hand again. We each give out hugs to Kate, Elliot, and Mia, but while Grace heads out for her car, Carrick hangs behind.

“I’ve narrowed it down to three names for police chief. My office will do one more round of interviews and then I’ll pick one of them to present to city council for appointment.”

“And they’ll be on our side?” I ask. “You’re sure?”

“Positive. Trust me, Ana. I’m going to find everyone who was responsible for what happened and make sure they end up behind bars.”

“How long will that take?”

“I don’t know. But I want you to know that I’m working on it. I haven’t forgotten, and I won’t.”

I take a deep breath, then nod, and Carrick leans in to give Callie one last kiss before he goes. Christian and I linger in the doorway while we watch everyone pull down the driveway. Once the gate closes behind the last car, Christian puts the code in the box that shuts everything down, then turns to follow me in the kitchen. We both carry in plates from the dining room, but as I start actually doing dishes, he becomes too absorbed in Calliope saying his name again and again to be much help.

“Our baby might be a genius, Ana,” he says proudly. “We should really look into getting her enrolled in an advanced preschool program.”

“She’s said one word, Christian,” I say, rolling my eyes.

“Yes, but her diction is perfect.”

“She’s not even a year old.”

“But the earlier we get her enrolled in pre-school, the better chance we have of getting her into a good primary school, which will get her into the best secondary schools, and eventually, Harvard.”

“Okay, Carrick,” I say dryly as I place the final plate in the dishwasher and turn the knob to start it.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, maybe we should give her a chance to be a kid before we start sending in college applications.”

“A mind like hers shouldn’t be wasted, Anastasia.”

I turn and lean against the sink, giving him a pointed look that doesn’t seem to have much effect on his resolve. It’s baffling. For a smart man, sometimes he can be very obtuse.

“Come on, Munchkin,” I say, moving towards him and taking her out of his arms. “It’s way past your bedtime.”

Surprisingly, she doesn’t fight me as I pull her into me and carry her off to the nursery, perhaps because Christian follows right behind us. While I lay her down in the bed and remove the teddy bear that has no business being in the crib with her, Christian winds up the mobile that dangles over her and fills the room with the soft tinkling sounds of music. We each lean over the edge of the crib railing and kiss her goodnight. Normally, I’d sit in the rocking chair beside the crib and read aloud to her, but tonight seems to have worn her out enough. She’s already half asleep by the time we pull away, and as we creep out of the room and switch off the light, she doesn’t make a sound.

“Alone again,” Christian says when we make it back to our bedroom. He captures my face between his hands, kisses me tenderly, and pushes me back to our bed. I gasp slightly as I fall back onto the mattress and he crawls over the top of me. We start tearing away each other’s clothes, but only seconds after he starts kissing me again, he stops and pulls away.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Would you mind if we… just went to sleep?”

“Oh, thank god,” I say with relief. “I’m so tired, I thought I was going to drop Calliope coming up the stairs.”

He laughs, but the sound slowly dies away, leaving him looking almost forlorn. “I guess our vacation really is over, huh?”

“I guess so.”

He sighs and kisses me again, then moves so we can pull down the covers and crawl into bed together. He pulls me tightly against him as he settles into sleep, and I lie there in the dark, encased in his warmth, waiting for his body to relax and his breathing to even out. Once I’m sure he’s asleep, I gently ease his arms off of me and roll out of bed. With one last look at his peaceful face, I turn and leave the room, heading straight for my office downstairs.

The security team should be off for the night, but the window from my office is visible from Taylor’s room, so I don’t turn on the light. I plop down in my chair, pick up the landline on my desk, and start to dial.

“Hello,” a very groggy voice answers.

“Luke? I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“Yeah, but that’s okay. What’s up?”

“I have an excuse to go to Cambridge. Alone.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Mia got into Harvard and needs someone to take her to orientation. Christian is going to schedule our flight for the first weekend of March.”

“Good. I’ll meet you there. We still on for Wednesday?”

I take a deep breath. “Absolutely.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 01

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I’ve missed the sun. This winter has been long, cold and extremely wet, so the feeling of its rays browning my skin right now is like being welcomed home after a hard fought battle. There’s a breeze coming off the tides of the Indian Ocean that keeps me comfortable under the insistent and unimpeded sun, and listening to the steady swell and crash of the tide is at once both absorbing and relaxing.

It’s paradise, and that’s what I try to focus on.

Not the beautiful baby girl I’ve left behind, or the miles of beach around us that are exposed and unprotected. Just this. Just the sun.

Christian and I have been in the Maldives for only two of our five planned days, and so far it’s been a struggle to be here and present with him rather than obsessing over what we’ve left behind. When he lured me out of the house Monday morning, all he told me was that he had a Valentine’s surprise. I expected jewelry or an intimate lunch. Maybe a hotel room and a complicated set of restraints to hold me down while we tested out a whole new slew of toys that would leave us both exhausted and well satisfied. What I didn’t expect was Kate and Elliot simultaneously making their way to my house so they could spend the week looking after my baby or the pre-packed bags that Taylor unloaded from the back of the SUV and into Christian’s private jet.

I nearly had a panic attack. My voice broke as the list of reasons we couldn’t leave Seattle poured from my mouth and my hands shook so badly that Christian had to take them in his to get them to stop. Since… it happened, Calliope hasn’t been out of my sight for more than a couple of hours. No overnights with Grace, no weekends with my father in Montesano. Last fall, Christian finally had a daycare built inside GEH with the thought that he’d earn some good will from his employees by providing free child care, while also being able to take Callie to work with him so I could write at home without any interruption. But she hasn’t been even one time. I can’t stand having her away from me. Ever. So there was no way I was going to get on that flight and leave her behind.

I fought. I argued. I did everything I could to get him to take me home. But, after nearly forty five minutes of back and forth, Christian managed to win me over. Not with promises of sun drenched beaches or exotic excursions through lush jungles and crystal clear seas, but with one transparently honest statement.

“Anastasia, I miss you.”

These past few months have been hard. I’ve tried to put what happened last August behind me, but I can’t. It is always in the back of my mind, and instead of getting better with time it seems to be getting worse. Sometimes I can hide it, sometimes I can’t. Because the fear that I felt that night changed me. I’m not the same girl I used to be. I’m jaded, paranoid, and I don’t trust anyone.

The best thing for me has been to keep myself occupied at all times. I spend every waking second buried in my novel or with my daughter. And between that, Christian’s international expansion with GEH, the election last fall, constantly checking in with Carrick to find out how his new chief of police appointment is going, and doing what I need to do to feel protected in the meantime, Christian and I have sort of… fallen out of sync. We don’t see each other enough, and when we do that time is usually dedicated to Calliope. Our sex life hasn’t suffered in terms of frequency, but it feels more mechanical than passionate. The love is there, but we’re not connecting the way we used to. This week is about fixing that, putting everything aside and thinking about nothing but each other.

This is going to be good for us.

This is going to be the honeymoon we never had.

This is going to be fun.

Except, I can’t stop obsessing over Calliope being alone in Seattle, without me to watch over and protect her. I can’t stop thinking about what could be happening while we’re away.

Just enjoy the sun, Anastasia.

After taking a deep breath, I stretch out on the sun lounger and close my eyes, thinking I might just let the sound of the waves lull me off to sleep. Christian didn’t exactly give me ample opportunity to rest last night after all. But, just as I start to doze off, I hear a high squeaking sound and the sun disappears.

“Why?” I complain, peeking out of the corner of my eye to see that Christian has re-adjusted the sun umbrella behind us so that I’m shielded by its shadow.  

“I don’t want you to burn.” He leans over me and starts kissing my neck. “I’ve spent the last hour thinking of several exciting things I plan on doing to you tonight and a sunburn doesn’t mesh well with what I’ve planned.”

I try, but fail, to conceal the smile his erotic warning brings out of me. “The whole last hour, huh? Sounds like you don’t find the book I gave you very engaging.”

“After reading your work, very little is. Besides, how could you expect me to read when the view is so incredible?”

“Mmm, it is beautiful.”

“Yes.” His hand moves from the side of my face, down the curve of my neck, and through the curves of my cleavage. When he hits the fabric of my bikini top, he works his fingers underneath in search of my nipple, which he pinches tightly between his fingers. “Beautiful.”  

“Very brazen, Mr. Grey,” I say, but my admonishment only makes his grin wider.

“Oh, baby. You have no idea.” Using the hand still toying with my nipple, he pushes my bikini top to the side, and the moment my breast is exposed his mouth is on me. I hiss slightly from the scrape of his teeth, but the sting is quickly soothed away by the gentle caress of his lips and tongue. My eyes quickly move to the umbrella again, checking to make sure that we’re concealed from the other resort guests enjoying the sun this afternoon. We are, so I close my eyes and force myself to keep quiet while he works his magic, and he takes advantage. Soon, his hands are trailing down my stomach and beneath my bikini bottoms.

“Christian!”  I sit bolt upright, moving away from his fingers. “What are you doing?”

He gives me a devilish grin. “Making my wife come.”

There’s a hunger in his voice when he speaks the word come that makes me tighten with anticipation, but when he tries to move his hand back between my legs, I slap it away and cover my breast again.

“We are not having sex right now. We are on a public beach!”

He raises an eyebrow before slowly looking to his right at the miles of uninterrupted white sand stretching out away from us, then to his left at the clean white canvas of the umbrella that stands between us and the few people lying out in the sand or surfing the waves far enough away that we can barely make them out ourselves.

“I think we’re okay.”

“Until someone comes back around with drinks.”

“Anastasia, I finally, truly have you all to myself again. No one knows who we are, my family isn’t here, Calliope is in someone else’s very capable hands, we don’t have security hovering over us, and there aren’t any paparazzi hiding in the shadows to get a photo of us together. Right now, right here, I really couldn’t give a fuck what the other guests may or may not see.”

I bite down on my lip, nearly won over by the carnal, ravenous look in his eye, but it’s his fingers that really start to win me over. He gently drags the pad of his thumb over me, spreading the hint of my arousal that he awakened before up and around my clitoris. With one last nervous glance, I turn towards the resort to make sure no one is coming towards us with a drink tray, and when I find the long winding path leading down to the beach empty, I nod and surrender. His eyes flash with lust as I settle back into the lounger and he slides a finger inside of me, searching for the perfect place that is sure to make me unravel.

I start to pant in time with his fingers moving in and out of me, and, as my legs start to tremble, he moves down my body, drops his head between my legs, and devours me. I gasp, tangle my fingers in his windblown hair, and push against his insistent tongue and fingers. Between his talented mouth, the sound of his own satisfied groans being muffled between my thighs, and the arousing possibility of being caught, it takes no time at all before I’m teetering right on the edge.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Shh. Keep quiet, baby.”

“Fuck quiet. Fuck being caught. Make me come, Christian.”

He hums with pleasure before sliding a third finger inside of me, and it’s my undoing. I convulse around his fingers, trying desperately to keep myself from making enough noise that I’ll attract the other guests on the beach. I think he sees me struggling because he moves up to take my lips with his then, and kisses me deeply, continuing to move his fingers in time with each pulse radiating from deep inside of me. I can taste myself on his tongue and it drives me wild. My orgasm intensifies until I have to pull away form his hand or risk passing out.

“God, you’re sexy,” he whispers, his tongue brushing lightly against my bottom lip. I take a deep breath, trying to get a hold of myself, but that seems like a lost cause when he pulls his fingers up to his own lips and subtly slips them into his mouth. “Mmm. Perfection.”

“You’re incorrigible,” I laugh, pushing him off of me and straightening my bikini bottoms again. I stand to tilt the umbrella again so that we’re still shielded from the other beach goers, but not the sun. As the rays begin to warm my skin again, I dig the sunscreen out of the sand next to the lounger and apply it to my shoulders and legs. He waits, watching intently as I rub my hands over my body, so I pour a large dab into my palm and slap it onto his chest.

“Hey!” he exclaims, indignant. I laugh, then climb onto the lounger, straddling him, and slowly rub the lotion into his skin. He leans back, enjoying the feel of my hands all over him, but when I lean over to kiss him he pushes back on my hips and stares up at me adoringly.

“Let’s go for a swim.”

“Now? Don’t want some kind of… reciprocation?”

He smiles. “Oh, I have plenty of ideas for that, Mrs. Grey. But they’ll have to wait for later. Now, come.”

“But I just did.” I grin, overly pleased with myself, and he shakes his head with mirth before rolling off the lounger, grabbing ahold of my arm, and lifting me up over his shoulder like a potato sack.

“Hey!”

“We could’ve done this the easy way, Anastasia, but you chose the hard way.”

“That’s because I like it hard.”

He laughs, then charges into the surf before dumping into the shallow waves and diving in after me.

 

Our time in the Maldives is amazing, and soon my preoccupation with the what ifs back home melt away so that I can enjoy every second of my alone time with Christian. I was fully prepared to spend all five days just lounging on the beach and relaxing, but Christian has packed each of our days here with seemingly unlimited activities and excursions. We snorkel over the expansive coral reefs and swim with sharks. We visit museums and exotic restaurants, where we both get to discover new favorite foods together. Christian tries to teach me to surf one afternoon, but that goes just about as well as the time he tried to teach me to ski, so we abandon that fairly quickly and decide instead to explore the local markets where we buy enough souvenirs for Calliope that it becomes necessary to purchase a whole new suitcase for the flight home. When we’re not treking all over the island, we enjoy bottomless cocktails on the beach or get couples massages at the resort.

And we make love.

Constantly.

Over every inch of our private water villa. In the sauna at the spa. In the coat check closet at the restaurant in the resort. Even once in the back of a taxi. It’s like we’re nineteen again and as the week ticks past and I feel our bond strengthening more than I think it ever has before, I realize that I’ve really missed him too. It makes the prospect of our final night here bittersweet, but as I get ready for dinner that night, he tells me that he’s saved the best for last.

At sunset, we head to the main beach outside the resort. The sun sinks low in the sky, creating an amazingly colorful sunset that is breathtaking and unbelievably romantic. There’s a feast taking place tonight, which is meant to give the guests a taste of Dhivehi culture, but despite the music, dancing, and the delicious looking food, Christian seems more occupied studying the darker, more private paths that lead away from the party than enjoying the festivities.

“Will you stop it,” I giggle, elbowing him in the side. He turns and looks down at me, but he fails to evoke innocence with his smile.

“What?”

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re not being very subtle.” I take a drink of the fruity cocktail in my hand and his eyes glimmer.

“I’m just thinking of you, baby. This party is going to go all night and there’s a lot of alcohol being poured. Whenever tequila is involved, I know I have to have a back up plan to get you alone.”

I laugh, then nearly stumble as he wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me into him so that he can kiss me. Again, it strikes me how liberating it feels to be openly affectionate with him and not have to worry about who’s watching or if there will be a picture of us splashed across some trashy gossip site the next day. We don’t even have to worry about making Taylor uncomfortable. It’s just the two of us. He’s not Mr. Grey, CEO, and I’m not Anastasia Steele, New York Times Best Selling Author. We’re just two anonymous people in love, and it’s everything I could want and more.

The hostess seats us at a small table covered in a crisp white table cloth with a candle burning low in the middle of a small floral centerpiece. When they bring food around to our table, Christian takes it upon himself to feed me, but only so that he can pull the fork away from me at the last second to keep me from actually being able to take a bite. The dancers come around and perform their traditional Dhivehi dance right before our table, and Christian takes my hand in his as we both enjoy their performance.

Finally, when the festivities die down and Christian and I are dizzy from the alcohol, he gets up from the table and holds his hand out for mine.

“No, I’m not ready to go to bed yet,” I complain.

He smiles and shakes his head. “We’re not. Come, I want to show you something.”

I glance down at his groin, then back up to his eyes. “I’ve seen it.”

“Not nearly enough.” He rolls his eyes and I laugh, but he leans over and takes my hand anyway. “Trust me, you don’t want to miss this.”

Placing my napkin on the table, I get out of my seat and, after we’ve thanked our hosts profusely for a magnificent evening, I follow him from the tented area out to the beach. Everything in the distance is hidden in the pitch black because the lights from the resort are so bright that they obscure the natural glow of the moon and stars. The sand beneath our feet is still warm from the constant rays of the sun throughout the day and I can hear the tide coming in, but I can’t see where the waves wash over the shore. It’s almost a little nerve racking, walking towards the ocean without being able to see where it starts. Eventually though, my eyes adjust and the light begins to illuminate the foam in the water, rather than conceal it. When the sand beneath our feet becomes wet and packed, Christian stops and turns to face me.

“Here we are.”

I frown, then look up the beach to my right, then to my left. All I can see is the dark shape of the water washing up over the empty beach before pulling away again.

“It’s… beautiful?” I say, turning back to him with confusion.

He smiles. “Look down.”

I do as he says and notice, as I move my feet, that’s there’s something blue in the wet sand. Not something solid, like an object, more like a pale light.

“What is that?”

“It’s called bioluminescence. It comes from a kind of plankton that floats between the islands here. It’s hard to make out properly with all this light, but it’s one of the great wonders of the world.”

“Too much light, huh?” I bite down on my lip and give Christian a mischievous smile before leaning up on my tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek and taking off down the beach, away from the resort.  He calls my name before chasing after me, following my illuminated footsteps until we come around a bend that frames the jungle and I stop dead in my tracks.

From here, the trees block the unnatural light coming from the resort and, in the darkness, the ocean seems to glow. It’s not just in the sand, it’s in the water, and as the tide rolls over the beach, it looks like we’ve stepped into some kind of fairy tale. The waves aren’t just neon blue, they sparkle, like the kind of magic you would see animated in a Disney film.

“Christian,” I breathe in astonishment. He smiles and takes my hand again, then pulls me down the beach to get a closer look. There’s an almost surreal quality to the waves as they wash over our feet. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen and as I stare out into the water, wondering how far this amazing phenomenon goes, I get an idea. I pull back on Christian’s hand so that he stops, then reach for the ties around my neck, unravel them, and let my sarong fall into the surf.

Christian raises an eyebrow at me, then takes a step closer, but I quickly turn away from him before he can take me into his arms and dart into the ocean, diving into the water the moment it becomes too deep for me to continue running. It feels much colder than it did during the day, but I don’t care. Every time I move my arms through the water the glow appears, surrounding me in a pool of bright blue light.

Christian is just as enthralled as I am. We swim together, diving under the waves as they come crashing towards us and chasing each other through the brief moments of calm in between. Eventually though, the cold becomes too much in conjunction with the rapidly cooling night air and we have to get out of the water. But as I move up the beach to collect my discarded dress, Christian grabs ahold of me and spins me into his arms. He holds me there, for a long moment. Not moving. Not speaking. Just staring deeply into my eyes, as though he’s reading his favorite novel for the millionth time, but still finding something new. Then, he takes my hand in his and, with no music, we start to dance.

He sweeps me through the sand to nothing more than the steady rhythm of the tide and as I spin into his body, he slowly dips me down until I’m relying only on his strength to keep me upright. With me fully at his mercy, he takes my lips with his. I moan and reach up to wrap my arms around his neck to pull myself as tightly against him as I can. He deepens the kiss, forcing my all too willing lips open. Slowly, we sink down until my back is pressed into the wet sand and he’s hovering over me. His hands move to my hair and the kiss turns into something more wild, more passionate. Heat floods through me, and I’m just about to reach down below the band of his swim trunks when a wave of water, higher than its predecessors, crashes into us and sends him toppling off of me, while nearly drowning me in the process.

“Shit!” Christian exclaims, scrambling back to me on his hands and knees. “Ana, are you okay?”

I cough, feeling the burn of the salt water as it moves through my sinuses. “Yeah. But that is not as romantic as they make it look in the movies.”

He laughs, hard enough that he falls into the sand at my side, and as we devolve into hysterics together, another wave comes rushing at us.

“No! No! No!” I scream, turning and clumsily scurrying higher up the beach to get away from the tide. I scoop up my dress, shake out the wet sand, and turn to face the man I love. He cradles my face in the palm of his hands, sending a wave of warm comfort and reassurance through me, then gently kisses my lips.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” he whispers, then, unexpectedly, reaches down to scoop me up into his arms. I shriek with surprise, and then giggle again before holding tightly to him and resting my head on his shoulder.

Back at the bungalow, he carries me into the bathroom and then turns on the shower. Though it’s a warm night, the breeze coming off the water through our open windows carries a chill and, without Christian pressed against me, I feel cold. Goosebumps pop up on my arms and legs and the chill only seems to grow more intense when Christian turns back to me and untangles the knots holding my bikini in place.

“Cold?” he asks, reaching around me and taking my exposed breasts into his strong hands. My hardened nipples peak through the gaps between his fingers.

“A little.”

“Then get in. I’ll be right behind you.” He softly kisses my shoulder before nudging me forward, and I’m so eager to get beneath the steaming cascade of water that I don’t even ask why he’s not following after me. I step into the shower and close the frosted glass door behind me, letting the hot water wash away the caked sand and the chill that clings to my skin. I don’t even reach for the shampoo or body wash. I simply close my eyes and let myself enjoy the feeling of the heat on my face.

That is, until the door opens behind me.

“Better?” Christian asks. I can only make a low, contented noise in response, and he lets out a single, breathy chuckle before pressing his naked chest into my back and leaning forward so that his lips brush lightly against my ear. “Don’t turn around.”

His hands move, but not to touch my body. Instead, he picks up the bottle of shampoo from the tile ledge, takes what he needs, then begins to work the fragrant liquid into my hair. The hot water feels as though it’s already melted away the tension in my body from being cold and nearly drowning back on the beach, but the feeling of Christian massaging my scalp somehow makes me relax even further. My legs practically turn to jelly beneath his expert touch, and I have to lean against him to keep them from buckling from under me.  

“Alright,” he says at last. “Rinse.”

I do, and since I have to turn to face him to wash the suds from my hair, I fully expect him to take advantage of my busy hands and closed eyes to explore my body. But he doesn’t. He simply picks up the sea sponge next to the body wash and begins to clean away the sand from my skin. It’s enticing, feeling the gentle caress of the sponge passing over my breasts and down and around my body. He’s meticulous, working slow to draw out my agony as I wait for him to really touch me, but he makes it all the way down to my toes without so much as letting his hand slip to any one of my most sensitive erogenous zones.

“That feels nice,” I whisper. He smiles and leans forward to kiss my inner thigh, then stands and slowly drags a single finger up the length of my leg until he finally touches me where I crave him most. I moan and push into him, wrapping my arms around his neck so I can pull his lips down to mine, but he stops me.

“Not yet, my love. I need washing too.”

My eyes pop open and a playful smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. “Well, then… hand it over.”

He places the sponge in my outstretched hand and, after adding more soap, I step aside to let him stand beneath the water. He wasn’t lying in the sand the way I was on the beach, so he’s not as dirty, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less fastidious in the way I wash him. Leaving a trail of suds  behind, I use the sponge to explore every inch of his amazing body. Every curve and line of every muscle, even the scar from the surgery after they removed his kidney last fall. The soft sounds he makes as I work my way down his body only feed my ever growing need for him, until I finish washing his feet and find myself on my knees before him.

I glance up and raise an eyebrow. “Smooth.”

He smiles, then brushes his hand past my ear, into my wet hair, and gently pulls me forward. I take him hungrily into my mouth, and roll my tongue around the head of his quickly hardening erection. Again, he moans and pushes his hips forward, encouraging me, telling me how good my mouth feels around him with every sudden intake of breath or tightening of his fingers in my hair. I reach up and press both of my palms against his well defined abs, digging my fingers into him every time he tests the limit at the back of my throat with his cock, and relishing in the soft, desperate way he says my name. I only wish that the water trickling off his body down onto me didn’t keep me from looking up at his beautiful face so that I could see just how much he loves this.

I can tell when he’s close by the way the tip of his erection tightens in my mouth and his legs start to shake. He braces himself against the shower wall, and I think he’s going to come in my mouth, but right at the last second, he pulls back and yanks me off the shower floor. The next thing I know, my back is pressed into the tile and he’s consuming me. His body pins mine to the wall, his hands pull my legs up around his waist so that his erection is pressing against me, and his mouth takes mine with an eager kind of fervor that makes me feel his kiss in the deepest, darkest parts of me.

“You’re so hot,” he breathes into my mouth, panting as I cling to him with my body and curl my fingers tightly into to the roots of his hair. “God, I want you.”

“Then take me. Make love to me, Christian.”

With one powerful thrust, he’s inside of me. My head drops back as I let out a pleasure filled gasp and my breasts press firmly into his chest. He leans over, and takes one of my nipples into his mouth as he starts to move and suddenly, it’s not the heat from the shower that makes me feel as though fire is crawling uninhibited across my skin.

It’s him.

It’s us.

“Fuck, you feel… oh, god. Ana!”

I lock my ankles around him, pushing him further into me so that I can take him as deep as possible. My fingers slip from his hair and drag down his back, making him groan and thrust into me harder and faster. It’s not long before he has me panting his name over and over again.

“Yes, like that. Please, Christian. Harder. Harder. Harder….”

He shifts so that he’s holding me with only one hand and the pressure of his body pinning me to the shower wall. With his free hand, he reaches down between my legs and finds my clit, only a few precious centimeters above the place he relentlessly moves in and out of me. It makes everything inside of me tighten, and when he groans at the feeling of my insides gripping his cock like a velvet vice, he leans into me again and presses his lips against the curve of my neck.

“I’m going to come, Ana. You’re going to make me come.”

It’s all I need.

I scream as the dam bursts and sends wave upon wave of pleasure throughout every inch of my body. I feel it surge and crash and surge and crash again until finally, he cries out my name and I feel the faint ripple that tells me he’s found his own release.

As the intensity fades away, I’m left with the after tremors of my orgasm while I try desperately to catch my breath. Christian’s face is buried in the conjunction of my neck and my shoulder and he starts to kiss me there until we’ve both recovered  enough that I can untangle myself from him and let him ease me out of his arms.

“I love you,” he tells me, and I let out a small, satisfied moan before leaning forward to softly kiss his lips.

“And I am utterly and completely in love with you.”

He smiles, looking relaxed and happy, then brushes the stray hairs that are matted to my face with water away. “Don’t take too long drying off. The bed’s too big without you.”

“I won’t,” I promise, and he kisses my forehead before pulling away and stepping out of the shower.

After cleaning away the remnants of our lovemaking, I turn off the water and reach for one of the fluffy, oversized towels to wrap myself in. There’s a hair dryer under the sink that I use to finish my hair, then I take a quick peak in the mirror to admire my new tan before heading off for the bedroom to join my husband.

He’s already in bed, once again reading the book I recommended to him last week, but when he sees me, he closes it, puts it on his bedside table, and pulls back the covers for me. I smile and leap into bed next to him, immediately cuddling into his side and reveling in the feeling of his strong arms wrapping around me.

“Tired?” he asks. My response is cut off with a yawn, so he chuckles slightly, then reaches over to turn off his lamp. We both sink down deeper into the bed, pulling the covers up over us and cuddling close together. It’s nirvana after a long day, and there, in his arms, I gently drift off to sleep.

That is, until I hear distant sound of a baby crying.

I’ve become so accustomed to being woken in the night by the sound of Calliope’s cries through the baby monitor, that at first it doesn’t even phase me. Not until I rub the sleep from my eyes and remember that I’m in not in my bedroom or even in my own house. I’m in an overwater bungalow nearly 9,000 miles away from her.  

I sit up straight, staring into the darkness with confusion. It’s quiet again, so I figure at first that I was just imagining things. But as I lie back into my pillow, I hear the cry again.

“Calliope?” The cry grows louder, so I turn to Christian in the bed next to me and try to shake him awake. He moans softly, but simply rolls over and drifts off again. I bite down on my lip as the wail becomes more insistent, then climb out of bed to investigate. It’s dark, so once I’m out of the bedroom I have to fumble along the wall to find a lightswitch. The outdated wiring means the electricity crackles for half a second before the light turns on, and, as the sitting room comes into view and I find the source of the noise, I have to hold back my scream.

“Gia?”

She turns a sharp glare up at me that makes me tremble. “Shh, you’re upsetting the baby, Anastasia.”

“Give her to me,” I breathe, taking a tentative step forward with my arms outstretched. “Gia, please. Give her to me.”

“Oh no, Ana.” She smiles, but there’s no warmth in it. “You’ve already lost her.”

“Wha-” The word cuts off as someone grabs me from behind and silences my responding scream with a gloved hand. I flail, trying to break free of the strong arms that snake around me, but it’s no use. Whoever has a hold of me tries to shush me, and while I can’t see his face or any other kind of identifier, I recognize his scent immediately. It makes bile rise up into my throat.

“You think it would be that simple to get away from me, Anastasia?” Linc whispers into my ear. “I told you I wouldn’t stop until I had what I wanted. You.”

His hands start groping my body while I continue to fight against him, thrashing violently in his arms until his hand slips from my mouth just enough that I can scream.

“Christian! Help me!”

“Shut the fuck up, Anastasia.”

“No! Help! Please!”

“Shut up, Anastasia!”

“No, get off me! Let me go!”

“Anastasia!”

My eyes spring open as Christian starts physically shaking me awake. He’s straddling me, one hand on each shoulder, and my first reaction is push him away. To fight his hold on me, just like I fought Lincoln. The first time this happened, I’d been so panicked that I hadn’t realized it was him when I woke and I’d given him a black eye trying to get away. But he’s done this enough now that he knows exactly how to hold me so that I’m forced to lie still until I realize where I am, what’s happened, and I’ve calmed down.

“You were dreaming, Ana,” he says softly. “It’s me. You’re safe. It was just a nightmare. You’re safe, baby.”

“Calliope,” I gasp, tears leaking from the corner of my eyes. “She has Calliope. We have to call, give me my phone…”

“No one has Calliope, Ana. She’s safe at home.”

I shake my head. “No, I saw her. She had our baby in her arms. She said I’d already lost her. Christian, we have to call. Taylor can save her. Taylor can get to her. Give me my phone!”

“Ana, look at me. No one has Calliope. No one is coming for you. No one is coming for any of us. Linc is gone. It’s over. You are safe. Calliope is safe.”

My chest heaves as I stare into his reassuring eyes until the fear slowly recedes from my body and I’m able to catch my breath. The adrenaline rush dies as quickly as it came and my natural reaction to the crash is to tremble and cry, but I fight it. The nightmares don’t come as often as they used to, but they happen often enough to make Christian worry and I don’t want that. I don’t want to go back to those first few months where everyone in my life treated me like some kind of breakable china doll. I’m not. And so I hold back my tears and force my body to stop shaking.

“I’m okay,” I tell him, moving slightly so that he’ll loosen his grip on my arms.

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.” I nod, letting out a long, soothing breath, and he pulls his hands away from me. As he moves back into the bed next to me again, he pulls me tightly against his body and places three soft kisses on my naked shoulder.

“I really thought bringing you here would help.”

“It did. I mean… Christian, I’m fine.”

“Really? You call this fine?”

“It was just a bad dream.”

“A bad dream that you’ve been having at least three nights a week for months.” I press my lips together, unable to respond to him. He tightens his hold around me and buries his face into my hair. “I’m not going to argue with you about this anymore, Anastasia. When we get home, you’re going to therapy.”

“Christian… I don’t need therapy. I go with you every week and it clearly hasn’t done anything.”

“Because you don’t talk!”

“But I listen.” I turn in his arms so I can look at him. “I listen to you, I listen to Flynn… The only person not being heard is me. I’m fine, okay? I just… I need some time.”

He exhales sharply, the same tortured look he gets every time we talk about this clouding his eyes. Usually, this is where he drops it, but tonight I’m not sure he will. So reach up to place each of my hands on either side of his face, brushing my thumbs over the curves just below his eyes, then slowly lean in to kiss him. He doesn’t rebuke me, but his responding kiss is tentative, and when I pull away he doesn’t look anymore reassured.

“I love you, Christian.”

He sighs. “I love you too, Ana. I just wish you’d let me help you.”

“You do. More than you know.” I kiss him one last time then nestle down into the space under his shoulder. His fingers move in my hair, sending tingling shivers down my spine, and as I finally start to drift off to sleep again, his lips press gently into my forehead and I hear him whisper that he loves me once more.

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