Chapter 29

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“Hold still, Ana,” Kate says, wrapping her fingers around my chin to hold my face in place as she applies a winged stroke of eyeliner across my lids. I’m sitting on my bathroom counter, in my underwear, because Kate doesn’t want to get make up on the ridiculously expensive dress we bought in the overly snobby store that I’m sure I wouldn’t have even been allowed to enter two months ago, but was welcomed into and waited on like some kind of princess when I pulled out Christian’s credit card yesterday.

“I hope you know this is the ultimate test of friendship,” I tell her as she begins coloring in my water line. She pulls the pencil away from my eye and laughs.

“Don’t make me laugh, or I’ll blind you.”

“That doesn’t inspire confidence,” I say pointedly, and she responds with an indignant look.

“Just hold still.”

I take a deep breath and look up, allowing her to finish my eye makeup before she picks up a tube of concealer. While she sets up and then blends out my contour, I sneak a glance down at my phone and try and prevent myself from frowning so that I don’t crease the makeup before it sets. It’s almost eight and we’re supposed to leave in thirty minutes.

“Don’t worry, we’re almost done,” She assures me, finally reaching for the finishing powder.

“I know, it’s not that. I just thought Christian would be back by now.”

“Yeah, where is he?” She asks.

“Therapy.”

“Well, he knows that this is a black tie event and he can’t just wear whatever suit he wore to the office today, right?”

“I would hope so since he spent $4000 on the naked dress yesterday.”

“It’s not a naked dress,” She says with exasperation.

“Oh yeah? Stand twenty feet away from me and squint your eyes. It’s a naked dress,” I argue and she shakes her head. While she begins searching through her makeup bag for lipstick, we hear the door to the bedroom open and Christian comes into the bathroom, looking slightly ashen face and his hair in complete disarray. His eyes dart between us and then he glares at Kate.

“I need to take a shower,” He says bluntly.

“Okay, I’m almost done,” Kate says, but Christian’s body tenses and he steps to the side so he can pull the door open wider.

“Get out, Kate,” He snaps and when she turns to look back at him, confused by the undeserved anger he directs at her, he lets out a sharp huff of frustration. “Now.”

“Okay, okay,” She says, picking up her makeup bag off the counter and hurrying through the bathroom door. He slams it closed behind her and begins tugging harshly at his tie, and I feel myself deflate a little. This is starting to get absurd. What hell is going on in his therapy sessions?

“What’s wrong, Christian?” I ask. He doesn’t look at me when he responds, but his voice is radiating anger.

“Nothing. I’m fine,” He shrugs his jacket off, still avoiding looking at me as he begins ripping the cufflinks out of his shirt. “I’m not seeing Flynn anymore.”

“What?” I asked, shocked. I get off the counter and walk over to him, reaching out for him out of habit as I come up behind him, but before my fingers make contact with him, he flinches and steps away so that I can’t touch him.

“Don’t,” He says, his tone a clear, resounding warning and I feel a chill run over my body. Fuck, this is bad.

“What happened?” I ask him, my voice weak with fear as I watch him peel his shirt away and begin aggressively undoing the buckle on his belt.

“Nothing happened, I’m just done,” He snarls back at me.

“You can’t stop… it’s important.”

“I’m not arguing this, Anastasia. I’m telling you that I’m done. No discussion. If you can’t handle that right now, then you can leave too.”

“Christian…”

“No!” He snaps. “God damn it, Anastasia, I told you I don’t want to talk about it. I’m late and it looks like you are too so why don’t you go put on some fucking clothes?”

His words hit me like a slap in the face, and suddenly, I’m uncomfortable standing in front of him in only my bra and panties. I look at him, shocked for a moment, and then fold my arms across my body, trying to cover myself, before turning and leaving the bathroom. The door slams closed behind me once again and the sharp sound makes me jump a little.

Kate is standing in the bedroom, looking at me with a shocked expression that I imagine mirrors mine. I’m pretty sure she just heard that entire exchange and my cheeks heat with embarrassment. I feel a pinprick of moisture bead in the corner of my eye and my breath chokes off in my throat.

“Hey,” Kate says comfortingly, crossing the distance between us in two long strides and reaching out for me. “Don’t cry, we don’t have time to re-do your makeup. It’s okay, he’s just… that wasn’t about you, Ana. Okay? He’ll take a shower and he’ll calm down.”

She rubs her hands reassuringly over my arms and I take a deep breath to stop the tears before they can begin. Kate dabs her fingers under my eyes, removing the moisture without wiping off any of my make up, and then smiles at me.

“Let’s get you dressed,” She says.

I nod and follow her to Christian’s closet where my dress is hanging in a cream colored dress bag on a hook by the closet door. She reaches up and pulls down the zipper, and the fine, nude colored fabric immediately begins pouring through the opening. She takes the dress out, unzips it, and then holds it open for me to step into. The dress is tight from the top of the bodice down below my behind, so once Kate tugs it up past my behind, I hold the dress in place over my boobs and suck in while she zips me up. She stands back, reaching down to fix the fall of the dress as I take the nude, crystal pave heels off the shelf.

We walk into the living room where Elliot, Grace, and Carrick have been patiently waiting for us for the last hour. Elliot lets out a long whistle when he turns around and sees Kate. She smiles and then holds her arms out to twirl around and show off her dress. The dark navy chiffon swirls around her in a soft, romantic cloud and Elliot is immediately drawn to her. He pulls her into his arms and kisses her deeply. I feel the smallest twinge of jealousy as I watch him smile down at her adoringly, good naturedly, while my own Mr. Grey is fuming all on his own and refusing to talk about it back in our bedroom.

Gail enters the great room with a glass of wine for both Kate and myself, and I take it gratefully as I hear the high ping of the elevator and turn to watch Luke step into the foyer. He’s dressed in a black suit with a black tie, and when the elevator doors close behind him, he doesn’t come in to greet me, he simply steps to the side of the elevator and stares straight ahead.

Oh good, CPO Luke. Maybe Dr. Ralston will call me later and tell me he’s decided to forgo having his class edit my book later, you know, to round out this already perfect evening.

I turn away from him, trying to engage in the conversation going on between Kate, Elliot, Grace, and Carrick, but once again my attention is diverted when I hear footsteps coming up the hall behind me and turn around to see Christian entering the great room. He looks heartbreakingly beautiful in a perfectly fitted tux, black bow tie, and still somewhat damp hair that is mussed in the kind of way that makes me want to slide my fingers into it while I run my tongue over the perfectly smooth line of his chin…

He stares back at me with the same kind of hungry appreciation I’m giving him, and for a moment, I think he’s gotten over his mood. But when I watch his adam’s apple jump in his throat as he swallows and the gray in his eyes hardens once more, I know that it hasn’t.

“You look… stunning, Anastasia,” He says, keeping his voice low in an attempt to make this a private moment between the two of us.

“Thank you,” I reply, “You don’t look so bad yourself, Mr. Grey.”

He gives me a half smile and then lifts his hand to show me a square flat box that I hadn’t noticed him holding. He pulls back the lid and my eyes widen as I stare down at the necklace resting over the black velvet casing. It’s a simple, long strand of exquisite round diamonds, but the ends don’t connect and instead hang down a few inches in the front. There’s no clasp, so I’m almost scared at first to put it on, worried it’ll slip off at some point in the night, but when he carefully eases the extremely stiff strand around my neck, I see that it doesn’t need one. He step back and motions for me to turn and look into the mirror hanging on the wall by the hallway and my hand automatically reaches up to touch the delicate diamonds draped artfully around my throat.

“It’s incredible, Christian,” I whisper.

“It looks beautiful on you,” He tells me. I smile at his reflection but there is no changes in the stoic features that look back at me. He simply nods and then turns back to face his family. “Are you ready?”

“Of course,” Grace says, her tone a little too bright as she reaches down to pick up her clutch off the couch. We walk towards the foyer and Luke reaches out to press the elevator call button for us. Christian stops and turns a hard glare on him.

“What are you doing here, Sawyer?” He asks sharply.

“Taylor has assigned me to security detail tonight, Mr. Grey,” Luke replies.

“And where is Taylor?”

Luke’s normally perfect professional demeanor falters a little as he raises an eyebrow at Christian. “You give him an assignment, sir. He’s taking care of the request you asked of him…”

“Oh,” Christian says, and he takes a deep breath and waves me forward into the elevator and towards the back corner so that I’m standing as far away from Luke as possible and his body is positioned between the two of us. It makes me want to roll my eyes, but with Christian’s current mood, I decide against it. We’re about to spend god knows how many hours in a room with hundreds of strangers, I really don’t want to start tonight out with a fight.

There is a sleek, black limousine waiting for us outside the front doors of the lobby which immediately sends Kate into flurry of giddy excitement. Christian has me climb in first, then he comes next, and the rest of his family files in one by one. Once Luke closes the door behind Carrick and climbs into the front seat of the limo, Christian reaches over to close the privacy glass between us and the driver, and we pull out into the light evening traffic of downtown Seattle.

Christian is silent on the way, and he sits in a way so that there is space between us and when I try to take his hand, he moves it away and rests it in his lap. He’s clearly preoccupied with something as I notice him staring off into space, shaking his head slightly every once in awhile as if he’s trying to shake off whatever it is he’s thinking. I’m worried about him and whatever happened with Flynn tonight, but I know now isn’t the time to try and get him to talk, not in front of everyone. So, instead, I focus on Kate, trying to mirror her enthusiasm and thanking her for her overzealous compliments on the necklace Christian has given me.

When we pull up in front of Columbia Tower, the door is opened and Carrick and Grace step out first followed by Kate and Elliot. I can see the flashes of the cameras as I scoot closer to the door, but they are magnified a dozen times over once Christian steps out of the car, blinding me as I step out onto the sidewalk. I move so that I’m next to him, waiting for him to offer me his arm, but he doesn’t. Instead, he turns away, and we walk up the carpeted walkway towards the front doors, ignoring the questions being thrown out from every direction around us, and not touching. Kate and Elliot both stop to smile and pose for the cameras, but Christian continues purposefully ahead without even so much as looking at the photographers calling his name. About halfway to the doors though, Christian looks up and sees his publicist standing on the steps in front of the door. She’s giving him a very stern look, motioning with her hands for him to stop for a picture.

I watch Christian’s shoulders rise and fall as he takes a deep steadying breath, and then he turns towards the cameras. There’s a moment of hesitation in his eyes, but after taking a deep breath, he moves his right hand so that it rest on my lower back as he angles his body towards me. I look up at him uncertainly, but he doesn’t look back down at me. He’s staring blankly at all the flashing lights and so I follow his lead and smile for the photographers, hoping my face doesn’t look as hollow as I feel in this moment. This is more than being distant… he’s actively not touching me, and I have no idea what I’ve done…

“That’s enough,” I hear Christian say in a low voice and he moves his hand away from me again and then leads me forward into the building. Jacqueline scurries up next to him, giving him pointers for the rest of the evening.

“There will be photographers meandering about the party so be prepared for whatever photo ops arise. I’d definitely like to get a picture of you with the mayor for the Seattle Times,” She says very quickly. “Remember that GEH is honoring the youth of tomorrow so let’s keep the message upbeat and positive. Do you have your speech prepared?”

“Yes, I’m fine, Jacqueline,” Christian says irritably as we emerge into the ballroom. She walks us over to our table and he pulls out the chair that the name card designates as mine for me, but he doesn’t sit in his seat next to me.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“I need a drink,” He says bluntly and he disappears into the crowd.

“Oh my god, Ana,” Kate says excitedly as she takes the place next to me. “It’s so beautiful in here.” She squeals as she picks up the place card with Katherine Kavanagh written across it in the delicate golden script. “Look, that’s my name!”

“That’s great, Kate,” I say placatingly and she turns to look at me, the excitement draining out of her face. “What’s going on, Ana? Are you and Christian fighting again? Is that why he’s acting like this?”

“I don’t even know anymore,” I say, shaking my head and then turn to smile as Ros and Gwen approach the table and find their seats on the other side of the chair that should be Christian’s.

“Hey, Ana. Kate,” Ros says, beaming as she sits down. “Isn’t this fantastic? And there is GEH brand placement everywhere. Ah, I’m in heaven.” She sits down in her chair and waves over my head at someone, and a few seconds later a man in a white tuxedo jacket appears with a tray of champagne flutes.

“Do you girls want a drink?” Ros asks us and I frown.

“Wait, they bring drinks to the table?” I ask.

“Of course they do,” Ros replies. “It’s a charity gala. They’re not going to make Seattle’s richest and most important people stand in line at a bar.”

“Then where did Christian go?” Kate asks, and we both begin looking around the ballroom. I try and search every face carefully as I scan the room, but it’s like trying to solve a Where’s Waldo puzzle, except my Waldo is wearing the same exact thing as everyone else.

I turn towards the entrance, thinking maybe he just needed to step outside for a minute, but as the crowd thins and I can clearly make out the entryway to the ballroom, it’s not Christian I see standing there. It’s Elena Lincoln, dressed in a black, floor length gown with a plunging neckline, her platinum hair rolled up into a complicated up-do that leaves a few loose tendrils hanging around her face. She leans up onto her tiptoes, aggressively searching the ballroom with her eyes.

“Kate.” I hiss, nodding towards the entrance and she turns to look at the doors and then stiffens.

“What the hell is she doing here?”

“One guess,” I say darkly. We watch Elena frown and then turn back into the hallway, and so I push back my chair to get up and find Christian. Once I get to my feet though, the lights dim and two members of the Columbia Tower staff close the ballroom doors. I turn to look at the main stage and a woman in an intricately embroidered silver gown walks to the podium and smiles as the crowd falls silent. I sit back in my chair and then reach into my bag to pull out my phone. I scroll through the contacts until I find Luke’s name and then send him a text message.

Do you know where Christian is?

It only takes about fifteen seconds for him to reply and I want to roll my eyes as the unkind thought that Christian could learn a thing or two from Luke crosses my mind.

Yeah, I have eyes on him. He’s not in the ballroom.

There is a round of applause around me as the woman at the podium steps aside and a man, who I think is the mayor of Seattle takes her place. I lift my hands and politely applaud until he holds his hand up for silence and begins to speak.

“Welcome ladies and gentleman, to my first Mayor’s Ball,” He begins, his voice boisterous and jovial as he looks out over the crowd. I have difficulty following most of his speech as my thoughts are occupied by Christian’s absence and what I assume he’s doing. It’s difficult, giving his mood tonight, to convince myself he’s not with Elena right now.

My stomach drops with the thought and I realize that I can’t sit here and not know where he is any longer. I stand again, apologizing as I slip away from the table and make my way to the main door. Thankfully, one of the staff members eases open the door for me and so I’m able to slip into the hallway without causing a disturbance, but the hallway is completely empty. I can hear the low echo of voices that sound like it’s coming from a large group of people so I head in that direction, but once I round the corner, Luke is in front of me, blocking my path.

“Go back into the ballroom, Ana,” He says quickly and I narrow my eyes at him.

“Where’s Christian?”

“Just go back to your seat. Please?” He replies. I stand there, trying to figure out what he’s doing when I see a movement behind him. Christian is coming around the corner, Elena’s long skirts billowing out behind her as she follows in his wake. I wait for the cold feeling I’ve come to expect from these moments to rush through me, but it doesn’t. There isn’t fiery anger, there isn’t stabbing pain, there isn’t strangling pressure that makes it feel like I can’t breathe… There’s nothing. I feel absolutely nothing and I think it’s because I knew what I was going to find. It’s hard to feel reactive anger at something you knew was going on.

Christian stops when he sees me standing next to Luke and I see the first sign of emotion break through the perfect impassive façade he’s kept up since we left Escala.

“Anastasia!” He calls when I turn around and begin walking quickly back towards the ballroom, but I don’t stop. I can hear my blood pounding in my ears, feel a tingling in my fingers. Everything around me is heightened, moving in slow motion, and as I struggle to catch my breath, I fear for a moment I might be having a panic attack.

I reach out for the door to the ballroom, yanking it back with far too much effort, but thankfully the room is alive with applause as the mayor finishes his speech and steps down. It’s loud again as people begin to once again mill about and I weave my way through the crowd towards our table until Christian’s hand wraps around my arm and he pulls me back to face him.

“Stop,” He says sharply, but he pulls his hand away from me again like he’s touched a hot iron or something. I glare at him.

“What?” I snap back. “What, Christian? What do you want?”

“What do you mean, what do I want?” He asks, looking down at me like I’ve just asked him the most ridiculous question in the world. I shake my head and take a deep breath, trying to remember that I’m standing in a room full of hundreds of people, but I’m interrupted before I can say respond to him.

“Mr. Grey,” Jacqueline says, stepping up and looking cautiously between the two of us. “They’re about to start the first dance and the photographers have asked to have you and Miss Steele positioned where they’ll have the best light. They’re waiting for you over there.”

The music begins and Christian looks up, his gaze searching the corners of the room like if he finds the speakers he can laser them down with his eyes and buy us a few more minutes.

“Later,” He says eventually, but Jacqueline frowns.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grey. It’s… It’s started. We’re on a schedule.”

“Then fuck the dance,” He snaps, and she flinches. Her mouth opens, but no words come out and I know it’s because she doesn’t know how to argue with her clearly very irritated boss, but she needs him to play his part tonight to be able to do her job successfully.

“It’s fine, Christian. Let’s just do the stupid dance,” I say. I turn and walk out onto the crowded dance floor towards the few photographers hovering around a particularly well illuminated area. When I stop, I take a deep breath and turn to face him, feeling my throat tighten as I recognize Chasing Cars playing in the background. Christian looks down at me with an almost lost expression as he hesitates for a single moment and then robotically takes my hand in his and then pulls me into him. We stand there motionless for a second, the awkward glances of each of the photographers trained on us, waiting, and then Christian sighs and pushes me backwards with his body.

We sway together, Christian leading me with the hand on my lower back that every so often grips into my dress like he’s holding onto me for dear life. I wait for the flashes to start, assuming they’ll come one by one so none of the shots are ruined by another photographer’s flash, but they don’t come.

“Can…” One of them says awkwardly after several seconds. “Can you two look like you’re having a good time or something?”

I glance over at the voice, the short, stubble cheeked man who spoke giving us a well-come-on kind of look. Turning back to Christian, I try to force a smile, or at least not look like everything that matters to me in life is suddenly slipping out of my hands, but the uncomfortable look behind Christian’s eyes lands on me like a punch in the gut and I can’t. He looks lost, worse so than he did before we got back together at the beginning of the summer. Looking at him now, it really feels like it’s over.

My eyes begin to well with tears again, but I’m still keenly aware of the photographers waiting for their photo around us. I know I’m not going to be able to fake what they want so I do the next best thing I can think of and lean forward and press my lips into Christian’s. He doesn’t react for half a second, but when he does it’s not in the way I would have hoped. His lips are tight against mine, restrained even. We’re bathed in a sudden burst of light as the cameras around us go off, and the moment they’re done and we hear Jacqueline ushering the photographers away, Christian pulls away.

I glance up at him, feeling lost. I don’t know what’s changed for him, but I can see now how much space has grown between us. I realize now that we’re at an impasse, not only are we not on the same page, we’re living in different genres. He’s not in the place yet where he can be what I need him to be and I’m not strong enough or secure enough to be the support for him that it would take to get him through this. I think this is why Dr. Flynn wanted us to wait before we jumped into a relationship together. Why he was so adamant about boundaries in the beginning. He was protecting me. He was protecting Christian. He was safeguarding this love that we have between us because it was worth protecting but we weren’t capable of doing that, and now we’ve broken it.

“Mr. Grey,” A man’s voice says and we both turn to see the Mayor standing next to us.

“Mayor McGinn,” Christian says, clearing his throat and turning to shake his hand. I step back to let the Mayor have Christian’s full attention and as they begin talking about his speech and the presentation of the scholarship later, I feel the emotion of the reality of what’s happening creeping up into my throat and I know that I have to get away from the hundreds of people around me before I fall apart.

“Ana!” Kate calls, smiling broadly as Elliot twirls her around the floor, but when I turn to look for her, a tear breaks over my water line and rolls down my cheek, and her smile disappears. I watch her say something to Elliot and then come after me as I turn again and make my way for the doors.

Luke is waiting in the hallway, and the moment he sees me sobbing into my hand, he straightens immediately and then ushers me away from the ballroom, and into a deserted corridor with Kate silently following after us. The moment I’m out of sight from the main hallway, I feel myself unravel.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I sob through my broken breathing. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

“What happened?” Kate ask.

“I found him with Elena again. When he was gone, he was with her. It’s just never ending, Kate. Every time I think he’s getting it, or that we’re going to move forward, he drags me back. I don’t want to do this with him anymore, I don’t want to compete with her anymore. I shouldn’t feel like it’s me against the two of them but I do because he always goes back to her.”

“No. No you shouldn’t,” Kate says. “That’s not okay.”

“I know,” I nod. “But what do I do? I try to talk to him, I try to fight with him, I try to ignore it, I’m constantly trying to reassure him, but nothing changes. It’s exhausting, and it hurts.”

My face begins to feel tight as the tears cut through the makeup on my face, and Kate closes the distance between us, pulling me into her so that I’m sobbing purple stained tears onto her dress. “What do I do, Kate?” I ask again.

“I think you need to leave him,” Luke says quietly, his voice sounding hoarse as he gets the words out. I look over at him, his expression serious, and then look at Kate. Her lips are pursed together, like she’s holding something back.

“Kate?”

“I was with you when he was in New York. I saw firsthand what he’s doing to you. Relationships aren’t supposed to be this miserable, Ana. He’s supposed to make you happy.”

“Are you happy?” Luke asks. I take a deep breath, the sobs finally subdued enough that I can calm down enough to speak normally.

Am I happy? I really don’t know the answer to that. There’s so much good in being with Christian that I don’t want to let go. Not just the sex, which is absolutely incredible, but also emails in the middle of the day that are just to tell me how beautiful I am, weekends decorating his apartment together, his carefree, slightly vindictive attitude when I lost to him in Monopoly, watching him rebuild my dad’s fence, the way he did everything he could to save my chance at having a phone call with my dad on Father’s Day, dancing around his living room to Adele, old black and white movies… the list goes on and on. I love him, maybe more than is good for me, and I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want to lose myself either, and I’m afraid that if I stay, that’s what’s going to happen.

“I don’t know,” I answer. “There’s a lot of good. More good than bad, but the bad is…” I shake my head.

“You shouldn’t have to sacrifice yourself for him, Ana,” Luke says, and Kate nods.

“It’s like he’s got you in this box where he can do anything and he can fuck up as many time as he wants because it’s somehow become your responsibility to save him from Elena. That is not your responsibility, that’s not Elliot’s responsibility, that’s not anyone’s responsibility. It comes down to him admitting his mistakes and letting her go. Maybe in order to do that, he needs to see that there are consequences for hurting the people who he says he loves,” Kate adds.

“I did that once, Kate. It made everything worse. It’s the reason we’re here.”

“So you don’t save him,” Luke says. “Maybe he can’t be saved, Ana. That’s not your fault and you don’t have to go down on his burning ship because he got himself into a mess that he can’t get himself out of. You’ve done what you can. Maybe it’s time you cut your losses and step away.”

I reach up and dash the tears of my eyes, smearing the black eyeliner over my index finger. “So, what am I supposed to do, just let Elena have him? I don’t think I can do that. I can’t let her win. Not after everything she’s done.”

“Ana,” I hear Christian voice and I look up and see him standing at the end of the hallway, looking at me with a gaunt, hollow expression. I stare back at him, wondering how much he heard, but the imploring look in his eyes tells me that however much it was, it was enough. “Ana, I-,” He begins, lost for words. I can see him searching for something, anything, to say to me, but coming up short. Eventually he nods to himself and walks forward, closing the space between us. “Just, come with me. Please.”

“I don’t think this is the time or place for…” Kate begins but Christian shoots her a menacing look to silence her.

“I think you’ve said enough tonight, Kate,” He snaps at her. Her eyes widen with repulsed indignation and I know that she’s about to tell him off but Luke is the one who speaks next.

“No. Go with him, Ana,” He says quietly.

“What?” Kate asks, turning a sharp look on him.

“Just, trust me,” He says, imploring me more so than Kate. “Go.”

I look at him for a minute, confused. I kind of agree with Kate in this situation… I need to talk to Christian, say my peace and lay everything out on the table so that we know if we’re going to be able to move on from here, but surely the Mayor’s Ball isn’t the place to do that. Luke’s purposeful gaze doesn’t waver though, and if he’s asking for me to trust him, maybe he knows something I don’t. I nod and then pick up the hem of my dress so that I can follow Christian down the empty corridor.

We round a corner and head towards a smaller, conference sized room. When we step inside, the dread I feel at what is coming is pushed aside to make room for confusion, when I find Taylor along with two military personnel sitting around the table which is taking up most of the room.

“Hold a minute, sir,” Taylor says. He pulls a cell phone away from his ear and then holds it out for me. I give Christian a confused look but he nods.

“Take it,” He says, and so I reach out and take the phone out of Taylor’s hand and put it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Annie?” The voice responds, and it feels as though my heart stops beating and then jumps up into my throat.

“Daddy?” I whisper, too shocked for find any kind of strength in my voice.

“Hey, baby girl!” He says, his voice breaking a little, and the small quiver is enough to send me back into hysteric sobs.

“Oh my god, hi,” I cry into the phone.

“Don’t cry, Annie,” He says, although I can hear that he is. “God, it’s so good to hear your voice. I missed you so much. How are you? How’s your summer been?”

“Uh… it’s been… it’s been good,” I stutter, hoping the tears still pouring out of me will cover the lack of conviction in my words. I wasn’t expecting this precious moment and I don’t know how long I’ll get, so I don’t want to ruin it by letting what’s happening now affect this chance I get to talk to my dad. Focus on the positive, Ana. “I got my grades back a few weeks ago, I still have a 4.0. My book is being edited over the summer and the head of the English Department at Harvard is going to try and help me get published by the end of next term. And I have an amazing internship this summer. I’m uh, kind of, almost, running a publishing company.”

“What?” My dad asks, shocked.

“I got a job running the implementation for a holding company in Seattle that bought a publishing house. I’m in charge of leading the turnaround, making changes, implementing new policies… I even have creative control over a new reading device that the parent company is inventing through its technology division.”

“Annie, that’s just incredible, sweetheart. I mean, I always knew that you were special, and that you were going to do amazing things, but to have that opportunity at twenty one years old? I hope you know what an accomplishment that really is. I’m so proud of you. You really are doing remarkable things, kid.”

I swallow the lump building in my throat. Those words are the single most important thing he could say to me and the relief of hearing them is instantaneous. My dad has never been one to shy away from telling me how much he loves me or how proud of me he is. He’s done incredible things for me my entire life, the greatest of which is this sacrifice that he’s made to put his own life on hold and even risk his life in active duty combat to pay for my dreams of going to school at Harvard… My biggest fear is that he’ll come home and feel like I’ve wasted the opportunity he gave me. I would never be able to live with the guilt of that and so to hear him say that he’s proud of what I’ve accomplished in his absence, that means everything to me.

“Thanks, Dad. I think about you over there a lot, every day, and it’s really put things into perspective for me. I know what you’ve given up to give me this chance and I promise you that I’m not going to waste it. I’m never going to be able to thank you enough for what you’ve done for me. But I want you to know that I know that I couldn’t have done any of this without you and I appreciate you. I love you, Daddy. I miss you. And I can’t wait for you to come home. It’ll be my turn to take care of you, and I will. I promise.”

“Annie, I’m just trying to give you the life that you deserve. I don’t want me not being able to provide something for you to be the reason you get held back. I have not had a single second of regret coming over here because I know that you deserve to be where you are, and you’ve proved what I’ve always known to be true. You’ve grown into an amazing woman and I’m proud that I’ve had something to do with that. That’s enough for me. You don’t have to take care of me. Although, it looks like you already are. How’d you get this phone call, anyway? I tried everything I could think of and they just flat out told me no.”

I glance up at Christian, who is staring at me expectantly. I know he’s waiting for me to talk about him. Ray doesn’t know about Christian and this was supposed to be the time I told my father about him and about everything we have… Christian’s been waiting for that and now that my dad has asked, this is supposed to be the moment.

“My boss got it for me,” I say, shifting my eyes away from Christian, and staring uncomfortably down at the floor. “He heard about what happened on Father’s Day, that I missed your call, and he wanted to help. He’s got contacts in the military, I guess, and a lot of money. He worked a miracle.”

“He sounds like quite the upstanding man to do that for an intern. You’ll thank him for me right? You’ll tell him what his kindness means to me?” My Dad asks.

I look up at Christian again but immediately have to look away from the look of shock on his face. I can’t face that right now, not while I still have Ray on the phone. I know this is going to feel like a betrayal to him, a real, deep rooted betrayal that is probably justified, but I can’t do it. Not with the way things are between us. I don’t even know if we’re going to make it through tonight and having Ray separated from Christian was what helped me get though our last breakup. One good thing untouched by Christian Grey.

“Annie? Did I lose you?” My dad asks.

“No, no I’m still here. I’ll tell him, Dad. I promise.”

There is a knock on the door and Jacqueline sticks her head inside. “Excuse me, Mr. Grey,” She whispers. “GEH is up. They’re ready for you in the ballroom.”

He nods and shoots a pained look back at me before following her out the room and closes the door behind him. I gasp as the tears start again.

“Annie, it’s okay,” My dad consoles me. “I’ve only got a few more months left. I’ll be back home soon and I won’t have to go away again. Soon, we’ll look back on this time apart and it will feel inconsequential compared to everything else.”

“I know, Daddy,” I say sadly.

“They’re telling me I’ve got to get off the phone now, Annie,” He says.

“What? No! Not yet, I’ve just barely gotten to talk to you…”

“I know, I’m sorry. Write me a letter, and I’ll write to you. It’s a long time ’til Thanksgiving so I’ll tell you now that I love you, more than anything else in the world.”

“I love you too, Daddy,” I tell him.

“Bye-bye, baby girl. Be safe, and keep working hard.”

“I will,” I promise. “Bye.”

The phone goes dead but I continue to hold it to my ear, letting my dad’s words play through my head over and over. I’m not ready yet to leave this room and face what’s waiting for me out there, but as the military men begin packing up and I’m forced to hand Taylor back his phone, I realize there’s nothing left for me in this room and so I turn to leave.

Both Kate and Luke are waiting outside and Kate immediately rushes forward and brushes her thumbs under my eyes to try and fix the damage to my makeup, but I just can’t find it in me to care about something that’s so trivial right now.

“Leave it,” I tell her. “I want to go. I can’t be here anymore.”

“Okay, we’ll call a cab,” She says. I reach down to take off my shoes, letting the floor length dress billow around my feet as I take Kate’s hand and we walk quickly back down the hallway. I can hear the voice of the woman who opened the ceremony earlier over the loudspeaker, her words coming clearer as we approach the ballroom.

“…and Executive of the Year, please give a warm welcome to the CEO and Founder of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Mr. Christian Grey!”

There is a thunderous round of applause and I stop to stare through the open door as Christian steps up to the podium. To the untrained eye, I imagine that he looks every bit the confident CEO, unshaken under the spotlights and hundreds of eyes trained on him. But even in the image of him on the giant projection screen behind him, I can see the pain in the flat gray of his eyes.

“Let’s go, Ana,” Luke encourages me and I give him an uncertain look.

“I-I…” I stutter, turning back to look at Christian as he gives his speech in the ballroom.

“We’ve got to go now. He’ll stop you if you wait until he’s finished,” Luke says and I take a deep breath and then nod as he ushers Kate and I down the hallway towards the exit.

Thankfully, we’re able to hail a cab almost instantly when we get outside so it takes us less than twenty minutes to get back to Escala. The moment the elevator releases us into the apartment, Kate and Luke jump into action. Luke starts pulling my clothes out of drawers while Kate heads into the bathroom to gather all of my toiletries. I stand back, watching them throwing my things into suitcases and duffle bags like I’m simply a passive observer and everything going on around me is out of my control.

“There’s shampoo at my house, so we can leave whatever is in the shower,” Kate says as she stuffs my makeup bag into a suitcase. “What about your apartment downstairs? Is there anything left in there that you need?”

“I-I…” I stutter. I look down at my suitcase, my eyes focused on the sleeve of a jacket Christian had bought for me last week sticking out over the side.

“I can’t do this,” I say quickly, and Kate gives me a concern look.

“I know. That’s why we’re taking you to my house.”

“No, I can’t leave. I can’t just sneak out. This is wrong,” I say, shaking my head, and without actually knowing what I’m doing, I move over to my suitcase and being pulling things out.

“Ana,” Luke says, placing his hand over mine to stop me. “You can always come back but you might not always be able to leave. If you’re going to talk, it’s better that you do it on neutral ground. Not in his apartment.”

“I don’t want to run away, Luke, I just…”

“Ana!” I hear Christian’s voice echo through the apartment and both Kate and Luke freeze.

“Fuck,” Luke hisses, and he picks up my half packed suitcase, zips it closed, and hands it to Kate. Christian comes through the bedroom door, his eyes darting between the three of us before they eventually fall on my suitcase in Kate’s hand.

“You’re leaving?” He asks, looking up at me with panic in his eyes. I stare back at him, speechless, as I don’t really know what I’m doing right now. “Please, Ana. I…” He begins as he walks towards me, but he stops when Luke steps in front of me and blocks his way.

“What the fuck are you doing, Sawyer?” Christian asks, angrily.

“I’m taking Anastasia to Kate’s house,” He says simply. “She wants to go, I’m helping her leave.”

“Like hell you are,” Christian snaps. “Get out of my way.”

“No,” Luke replies, and Christian’s eyes freeze over.

“Careful, Sawyer,” He says, a dangerous warning beneath his voice. “Remember, you work for me. Not her.”

“Then I quit,” Luke says. “I’m taking her with me.”

I can see Christian physically shaking as he stares back into Luke’s impassive gaze. I step forward and put my hand on Luke’s arm.

“Luke, it’s okay.”

“Ana…”

“Just give us a minute, okay?” I ask and he stares at me uncertainly for a moment. I give him an imploring look, silently begging him to just go because I know that he’s only making this whole situation worse. This isn’t how I want to do this anyway. If I’m going to leave, I don’t want it to be because I’m running away.

“Fine,” Luke says at last. “I’ll be downstairs. If you need me, call me.”

I nod and he turns to give a cold, warning look at Christian before he leaves the room, Kate hurrying out behind him with the handle of my suitcase still clutched in her hand. Christian turns around and slams the bedroom door closed behind them, his shoulders rising and falling with each heavy breath.

“I can’t let you go, Ana,” He says quietly. “I can’t watch you walk away from me again. I can’t. You promised me that you wouldn’t leave, that you weren’t going anywhere.”

“I can’t keep doing this with you, Christian. Can’t you see what it’s doing to me? This is killing me. Every time you run off to her, it kills me.”

“I didn’t run off to her.”

“I saw you with her!”

“She found me. I was with Taylor. I told her to leave and she wouldn’t and so I left and that’s when you saw us. I was leaving her, I was going to you.”

“I don’t believe you, Christian. You’ve lied to me about her too many times, you’ve gone behind my back with her too many times.”

“That’s done with. I told you that the other day. I’m sorry that I called her on my birthday, Ana, but that’s not what happened tonight. I’m done with her. I’m done, I promise you.”

I shake my head, wanting to believe the words he’s saying to me but I just… don’t. How could I after the way he’s been all night? “I’m sorry, Christian. I just don’t believe you.”

He lets out a short, harsh breath at my rejection, shaking his head incredulously. “Is that why you didn’t tell your dad about me?” He asks. “Because you were going to leave me tonight, so why bother?”

“I didn’t tell my dad about you because if I did, that’s what he would want to talk about. You’re the only serious boyfriend I’ve ever had, Christian. You’re the only person I’ve ever loved. I didn’t want to spend the few minutes I had with my father lying to him, because he would want to hear how happy I am, but I am not happy.”

He turns away from me, his hands shooting up into his hair in frustration as he paces the floor a few times. “What more can I give you, Anastasia? I do everything I can to make you happy. Do you know what it took to get you that phone call tonight? Do you know what it took to get you back into Harvard? I bought a fucking company for you to give you your dream job. What more can I do?”

“You can let me in!” I shout at him. “I didn’t ask for you to buy me a publishing company, I didn’t ask for you to get me that phone call. I love that you care enough to do those things and when I’m not so angry with you, I really do want to talk to you about how much I appreciate what you did for me tonight, but what I want from you, is to put down your walls and talk to me. Stop turning to Elena Lincoln and turn to me. Let me be the one to help you.”

His mouth tightens into a thin line and he looks down at the floor, shaking his head, and the tears burst out of me again. “Why, Christian?” I ask, pleading now as this is the question that I need answers to. “Why won’t you let me in?”

“Because I don’t trust you,” He says flatly, and as his words hang between us, I actually have to reorient myself.

“You don’t trust me?” I ask skeptically.

“No, I don’t trust you, Anastasia,” He says.

“What have I done to make you not trust me, Christian? And I swear to god, if you say anything about Luke right now, I’m going to lose it because you know for a fact…”

“Do you realize that you haven’t told me that you love me even once since you’ve been back?” He interrupts me, and I look back at him, puzzled. “I tell you that I love you every day and you haven’t said it even one time.”

“That’s ridiculous…”

“No it’s not. You don’t think I notice every fucking time I say it to you and you don’t say it back. I love you, Anastasia.”

“Christian, this isn’t…”

“Jesus, you can’t even say it!” He interrupts me. “You don’t, do you? What was this summer to you, Anastasia? Were you using me? Playing house with me to keep me happy so you could get through your internship and then leave and shut me out again? Or was I just a good fuck? It’d been a while for you, right? Is that what this was about?”

“No, of course not. Christian, how could you say that?”

“Then answer me right now. Do you love me, Anastasia?”

I stare back at him for a moment, his gaze burning into me with such intensity it feels as though it’s boring into me. “Of course I love you, Christian. I love you so much that sometimes it feels like I can’t breathe when I’m not around you. You’re all I think about, you’re all dream about. You’re my entire world.”

“Then we can work this out,” He says, “Ana, I know it hasn’t been perfect, but that doesn’t mean that we should quit. We did that before and we were both miserable. You’re the person I’m supposed to be with. You’ve changed me. You’ve changed my life and all of the plans I’ve ever made for the future. Everything I think about, I think about in relation to you. I want to provide for you, I want to care for you, I want to give you your hopes and your dreams. I want to give you the best life I can, because I love you and I want you to be mine. I know it’s been hard, but I’m trying…”

“You’re not trying, Christian! You’re giving up. Just a couple hours ago, you told me you’re quitting therapy. That’s not trying!”

His mouth sets in a firm line. “Therapy isn’t helping me, Anastasia. You think Flynn is the first therapist I’ve ever seen? I’ve been through every kind of therapy imaginable since I was four years old and it’s all been a waste of time. I don’t need another doctor forcing me to recount every bullshit thing that’s ever happened to me to know that I’ve lived a fucked up life. That I’m fucked up. I’m very well aware of that fact. A psychiatrist can’t change that and I can’t face it anymore.”

“But you have to, Christian. You’re not going to be able to move on until you accept and deal with what’s happened to you. I know it’s hard…”

“You don’t know anything, Anastasia!” He shouts at me. “You didn’t have a mother who didn’t want you. You didn’t spend your nights as a kid locked in a closet terrified that your mother’s fucking pimp was going to find you and beat the shit out of you. You didn’t have to sit at three years old and listen to your mother scream while she was raped in the other room. You didn’t spend years being silent because you knew that you were a fucked up little shit and you were terrified your new, perfect family would find out and take you back to where you came from. You don’t know what it’s like to spend your entire life paralyzed by fear every time someone touches you. You don’t know what it’s like to find the one person whose touch isn’t bad, who loves you and makes you feel worthy of that love for the first time in your life and then have to live with the fact that you’ve not only driven them away but that you’ve broken them too because you’re so fucked up that you destroy everything around you.”

I stand there, silent and shaking. There it is. I asked for him to open up and he’s given me a window of insight. But, now that he has, now that I can hear the horrid, vile way he sees himself, I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say to that.

“Christian…” I say, my voice breaking as I open my arms and walk towards him but he puts his hands in front of him and backs away.

“Don’t,” He warns me and I stop immediately. Slowly, he lowers his hands and then takes a deep breath. “Why do you think I cut my family out after you left, Anastasia? I knew I’d done enough damage to the people I love. That’s why I don’t turn to you. That’s why I turn to Elena, because she’s just as fucked up as I am, but now…” His voice cuts off.

But now?

I stare at him cautiously, waiting through the silence that feels as though it goes on forever until he finally speaks again. He looks up at me and I can see the pain etched on his face. He walks over and sits on the edge of the bed, resting his face in his hands for a moment.

“I did what you asked,” He says. “I told Flynn about our night in Montesano and our conversation the next morning, and I told him I wanted to talk about why I didn’t want you to be a submissive.”

“And… what happened?” I ask. I want to go and sit next to him, but after his clear refusal of my touch, I don’t know if that’s a good idea right now.

“We talked a lot about when I was Elena’s submissive. The things we did together, the things she did to me, the things she made me do to her. We talked about the rules. And then, we talked about the punishments. We talked a lot about the punishments. You asked me the other night if she ignored my safe words, if that was the reason I kept reminding you of them…” He shakes his head. “She didn’t ignore my safe words, she made me ashamed of them. She made me feel like I would be weak if I used them and then she tried to hurt me. She tried to see how far she could push me to force me to say those words, knowing that I wouldn’t. It was a game to her. It’s not supposed to be like that. When we were upstairs on my birthday and I was going to hit you… I didn’t want to hurt you, Anastasia, and I was afraid that you were going to let me. The way that I let her hurt me.”

“Christian, I’m so sorry,” I whisper and he looks up at me with a pained expression.

“What she did to me wasn’t BDSM,” He says. “It was abuse. Tonight, when I went to see Flynn, I saw it clearly for the first time. She abused me and then made me justify it to myself by getting me off. I was a kid. I was just a kid… I trusted her and she used that trust to molest me. I didn’t see it before. I refused to see it before because I didn’t want to feel like this. It doesn’t make me feel better to know what she did to me. I don’t want to feel this. It makes me angry. It disgusts me. It makes me never want to touch you, or make love to you again because now my body feels like it belongs to her, like she took it from me, and I don’t want to taint you with it.”

His last words make my stomach roil and clench uncomfortably. I feel my hands trembling as I yearn to reach out and touch him, to wrap him in my arms and hold him until he doesn’t feel this way anymore.

“You know there’s almost a sense of poetic justice to all of this,” He says with a dark, humorless laugh. “Now that I see it, now that I realize what she’s done to me, I want her to pay for it. I want justice for what happened to me but she made me give her that too.”

“Maybe… maybe there’s something we can do. Maybe we could try again and we could say that you committed perjury under duress. We could have Flynn testify to all the therapy you’ve done, that you’ve only just now understood what it was that she’s done to you.”

He shakes his head and looks down at his shoes. “I don’t want to put my family through that again, especially not my Dad. I don’t want to relive this anymore, I just want to leave it behind me.”

I frown and then take a tentative step closer to him, checking to see where the boundaries are between us right now, and the second I move, his body reacts. It’s subtle, but not unnoticeable. He automatically shifts, almost defensively, and he looks up at me. I stop and he takes a deep breath and continues.

“I’m going to give her thirty days,” He says. “She can buy the salons from me if she wants them and if she doesn’t, I’ll sell them to someone else. They’re profitable, it shouldn’t be hard to find a buyer. I’ll break them apart if I have to.”

“You mean… you’re going to get rid of Esclava?”

“Yeah. Honestly, part of me wants to get rid of my whole fucking company. It’s tainted by her and what she did to me and the lengths that I went to in order to justify it myself.”

“No, Christian. That’s not true. She gave you money, but that’s it. GEH is what it is because you made it that way. You built it, not her. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for your success because she gave you your start. She owed you that. She owes you so much more that she will never be able to pay back to you and you don’t have to feel anything for her anymore. She doesn’t deserve your pain. If you don’t want to take legal action for what she did to you, then that’s something that you’re going to have to find peace within yourself for, but if you want to move on and leave her behind, then I want to be with you going forward.”

“You do?” He asks, his face softening slightly as he looks at me with hope, the first thing other than anguish that I’ve seen in his eyes since he came back from therapy tonight.

“I do. I love you, Christian Grey.”

“You’re not going to leave?” He asks, and even as he seeks validation, I can hear the doubt in his voice. “You’re not going to run?”

“No,” I say firmly so that there can be no doubt. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to leave you, Christian. There’s nowhere else I want to be.”

“Oh, thank god,” He gasps. He stands from the bed and charges at me as though he’s going to sweep me into his arms, but he stops a few feet in front of me, his hands frozen in midair, and he looks down at his fingers like he’s not sure what to do with them.

He still doesn’t want to touch me and the visual of him standing in front of me, the usually completely self-assured, confident CEO now addled and so uncertain, it nearly eviscerates me on a deep, existential level and I feel tears prick in my eyes again.

“Come with me,” I say, my voice quivering, and I turn and lead him into the bathroom. I make my way to the shower, twist the handle for the hot water, and then turn to face him again. I reach up for my zipper and ease it down and as I step out of my gown, he too begins to undress. I take a washcloth out of the cabinet and we step into the shower. Again, the temperature of the water is hotter than I prefer, but I want Christian to be comfortable, so without complaint, I reach down, pick up the body wash and pour it onto the now damp washcloth.

“I’m going to touch you,” I warn him and he looks down at the wash cloth in my hand and the nods. Slowly, I lift the cloth up to his body, trying to ignore the pain that lances through me when at first he flinches away from my touch, and then I begin to wash him.

I’m thorough, taking my time as I scrub the washcloth over his body, adding more soap as I need, and the more of him I clean, the more I feel him relax.

“There,” I whisper, when I’m finished. I step aside to let the water rinse away the remaining suds that cover his body, but he reaches out and pulls me back into the water with him. He doesn’t press his body into mine the way he would have only yesterday, but I’m only just not touching him now and he holds onto my arms for a moment before his hands move up to each side of my face. He tilts my face up to his and he stares deeply into my eyes.

“I love you, Anastasia,” He says.

“I love you, too, Christian,” I reply, and slowly, he leans down and gently presses his lips into mine.

Next Chapter

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