It has been a long day at sea. Though my father had a good day, it felt like hours before Elliot even had a bite. But when he reeled in the small Trigger fish he’d finally snagged off the reef, the look on his face was so deeply satisfied one might think he’d just pulled in a whale. He held it up for mom to take a picture, but when Dad took it and laid it next to his own Bluefin Tuna, some of Elliot’s excitement dampened a little.
It’s late afternoon by the time we get back to the compound, but Ana and Kate still aren’t home from their shopping trip. I had arranged for one of the chefs from a local resort to come to our compound for the evening to cook for dinner for Elliot’s birthday, and after we give one of the people on his staff the fish we’d caught that afternoon, we head down to the cabana on the beach to sit around the table and talk while we wait for the girls to get back.
It takes about an hour, but eventually, we see them coming down the walkway from the main house, and when I see Ana descending the steps, both her hair and dress blowing gently in the sea breeze, a smile crosses my lips. She looks so beautiful and the white dress she’s picked to wear tonight, is perfect for what I have planned.
My father is the first to greet them as they step into the cabana, and the moment Ana comes around the table and takes the seat on my right, I lean over and kiss her softly on the lips.
“You look beautiful,” I tell her, reaching down to touch the exposed skin on her back. “I like this dress.”
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” she says. There’s almost a sense of mischief in her voice and as I lean over to take her lips with mine once more, I’m stopped when something small flies across the table directly into Ana’s face.
“Rule number one of Elliot’s birthday dinner,” my brother proclaims from across the table as he tears another small piece from the roll in his hand. “Christian and Ana can’t make out at the table.”
“That’s the worst rule I’ve ever heard of,” I reply. I pick up the small bit of food he threw and toss it back at him, striking him right in the center of his forehead. He gives me a challenging look as more food is laid out on the table before us, but I hold up one hand in conceit and then, rather than continue to press my luck with Anastasia at the dinner table, I reach down with my other hand, entwine it with hers, and turn my attention to the food and conversation happening around us.
When dinner is over, Elliot opens his presents and after I give him the keys to my Veyron and the paperwork to Grey Construction, he crosses the table, pulls me out of my seat, and wraps me in a hug.
“Okay, you’re making it weird now,” I say, feeling slightly uncomfortable with the outpouring of gratitude and emotion charged into the moment. It’s eased though when he punches me in the arm and moves back across the table. He leans over to kiss Kate, promising her a better future, and giving me the perfect opportunity to make my move.
“The sun is going down,” I say to Ana, reaching over to gently trace my fingers over the exposed skin on her back. “Will you go walk down on the beach with me for a minute?”
“Sure,” she says quickly. I push back from the table and wait while she pulls her napkin from her lap, dabs the corners of her mouth, and then tosses it onto the table. She holds her hand out for mine so that I can help her out of her seat, and I don’t let it go as we step out of the cabana. I can feel the eyes of my family following us as we step into the still warm sand on the beach, but I ignore them. Instead, I tighten my hand around Ana’s and lead her down to the edge of the surf, purposefully taking her up the beach far enough that we’re out of sight of Kate and Mia who have come down from the dinner table to take more fucking pictures.
I glance quickly over my shoulder, the cabana on the edge of our compound now just a small speck in the distance, and then stop. “Come here,” I say, gently pulling on her hand and leading her into the water rolling over the wet sand. She gathers her skirts into her hand and walks into the sea with me, the tide coming in at just over our ankles as we stand there waiting for the increasingly orange sun to touch the water on the horizon.
It’s a perfect moment, everything I wanted it to be when I fantasized about how this would play out. There’s nothing weighing us down anymore, no one to come between us, no more hurt or anger. I’m no longer living a double life, I’m no longer beholden to Elena Lincoln, and as I feel the overwhelming sense of freedom that leaves me with, I realize that despite the depth and all-consuming nature of the love I’ve always held in my heart for Anastasia, I was never able to fully give myself to her until the moment Elena was taken from that courtroom in handcuffs. There’d always been a third person in our relationship, a wedge between us, and now that it’s been removed, Ana and I work perfectly together. Moving in perfect synchronization, loving one another to the very depth of our soul, and although I know, in this moment, that the sheer gravity of the feeling I have for this woman will tie me to her forever, I’ve never felt more free.
I hear her let out a soft, appreciative sound and as she moves closer, her fragrant hair brushing up against my t-shirt and the heat of her body washing over me, the box in the pocket of my swim trunks feels as though it weighs 10 lbs. I take a deep breath to prepare myself, but before I can say anything, I feel Ana squeeze my hand, and look up at me.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks.
Here we go.
“How good this feels,” I answer honestly.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just… for the first time in, god I don’t even know how long, I don’t have to think about her. I don’t have to worry about her, or if I’m pissing her off, or if she’s pissing me off, or what she’s going to do, or keeping you away from her… She’s just, out of my life, and it feels so good. Like, this weight has been lifted off of me that I didn’t even know I was carrying. Suddenly, it’s just you, me, and my family. I don’t know it’s just… suddenly life doesn’t seem so hard.”
“It isn’t,” she says, tightening her hold on my hand as she turns to face me. “Not always. It’s supposed to feel good. You’ve been stuck in the dark for so long, I can’t wait to explore the light with you.”
“Me either.” I smile down at her, knowing this is the moment. The sky above us is hued in different shades of pink and purple, the ocean is glittering endlessly out in front of us, and she looks absolutely beautiful. The vision I’ve had of me kneeling down in the surf and presenting her with the ring that I’ve spent months meticulously designing and searching for the perfect diamond flashes across my mind. I turn to face her, almost jumping the gun and just pulling the ring from my pocket now, but I want this to be perfect. I want this to be a moment she’ll remember for the rest of her life.
“I love you so much, Anastasia. I wish this week would never end,” I tell her.
“I love you too, Christian,” she replies, pushing her body into my mine. I take a breath, preparing myself, but her intuitive nature takes over and she jumps in ahead of me.
“Can I ask you something?”
“You just did,” I reply, a small laugh marring my words slightly, but when she raises an unamused eyebrow at me, I nod.
“Before I left SIP, Jack told me that you hadn’t appointed anyone to take my position.”
Well, that’s not entirely accurate… Although, I suppose no official announcement has been made. But as I stare down into the inquisitive look into her eyes, I wonder if she’s asking because she’s already considered the selfish question I’ve been battling over all week. Maybe she wants to say, and this is her way of asking for her job back.
“No…” I agree hesitantly.
“Why?” she asks, and I deflate a little as, just as quickly as the hope had sprung in my chest, it’s dashed away. I’m going to have to be the one to ask for it…
I take a deep breath, then lean down and press my lips into hers, drawing out the moment until I have to break the kiss.
“I don’t want you to go back to school, Anastasia,” I say after a long pause and I feel, rather than see her brace herself. Fuck.
“Christian…” She begins, but before she tries to talk herself out of this, I want her to see the whole picture, to understand all of her options, so I interrupt her.
“It could be so great, Ana,” I begin. “You could write all you wanted to, we could have your book published through SIP. I’d even gift SIP to you if you wanted it. You could run it however you wanted to, champion the authors you wanted to. I’d help you grow it and make it into something powerful so that you could single handedly change the course of modern literature. I know school is important to you, and I know the things you’ve sacrificed and that your father has sacrificed to keep you there, but if I don’t ask you to stay, I’ll regret it every day you’re gone. Stay with me, and I will give you your dreams.”
I feel the weight of the ring in my pocket again, and I briefly consider ending my promise by pulling it out and presenting it to her. But when I finish, she diverts her eyes away from mine and her grip slackens against my hands. She’s going to tell me no, and to put a proposal on top of that… I couldn’t handle that.
“Harvard is my dream, Christian,” she whispers. “It’s always been my dream.”
The sting of the rejection in her words is more poignant than I was prepared for. I can almost feel the echo of pain that had plagued me all those months that we were apart. She’s leaving… In this moment, the realization finally hits me. She’s leaving. Moving 3000 miles away from me and while she may come to visit and I can go to her whenever possible, the fact is that she’ll live in Cambridge and I’ll live in Seattle. She won’t be there when I wake up in the morning, she won’t be there when I go to sleep at night. We won’t have dinner together, we won’t spend weekends on my yacht, or have Sunday brunch with my parents. Even when she comes back to visit, I’ll have to watch her leave after only, what? A day? Maybe two?
“I’m not going anywhere,” she says, reaching up and placing her hands on either side of my face and forcing me to look at her. “You’re not losing me. We may not be together every day like we want to be but I know the love that we have for each other is strong enough to work through the distance. And, I’ll come home as often as I can and you can come visit me whenever you get a chance. I’ll come home for holidays, and after the school year is over, I’ll move back here and we won’t have to be separated ever again. I’m yours, Christian. Body, mind, and soul, and going back to school isn’t going to change that.”
I stare down at the conviction in her eyes, and even though her promises are just reiterations of what I’m going to hate most about her absence, somehow, when she says them, it’s comforting. Perhaps it’s the way she refers to visiting me as coming home, or maybe that she reaffirms that she is mine and that we belong together, but either way, the look of love I see reflected in her eyes makes it feel as though this isn’t the end of the world.
“I don’t want to have to miss you,” I tell her.
She nods. “I know, but when you do, you can call me, text me, email me, Skype me, get on a plane and fly to Massachusetts… or, you can just know that whenever you’re missing me, I’m missing you too, and that I’m counting down the days until I get to be with you again.”
“Nine months,” I say, letting out an exhausted sigh as just saying the words aloud feels daunting. “I can do nine months.”
“Good,” she smiles. “Thank you for waiting for me, Mr. Grey.”
“You’re worth the wait, Miss Steele,” I reply, and as I lean down to kiss her again, my mind once again shifts back down to the box in my pocket. A box that will now have to wait through the long months of the school year until she’s fully mine again.