Chapter 22

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“You sure you have everything you need?” My mom asks as we climb into her car. It’s an unusually dreary morning in Las Vegas and the bleak weather makes me glad to be leaving for Aspen today.

“I think so,” I tell her. “But if I don’t have it now, I’ll just have to do without it.”

She nods as she pulls out of the driveway and while we make our way through the early morning traffic towards the airport, we sing along to her favorite Pat Benatar CD. It’s actually been great spending time with her these past few days. Bob’s been busy at work so Mom and I have spent time going to her yoga class, spinning pottery, and trying new recipes we found online. The bonding has been wonderful and I’m actually sad to leave today,  but I’m also ready to be with Christian again. Despite the fun I’ve had with Mom, I really miss him.

His family left Seattle at 5:50 this morning, so by the time I board my flight, they, theoretically, should already be in Aspen. I was asleep when I got his text this morning that they were on the way to the airport which meant that I didn’t get to wish him a safe flight, so I hope that he calls me when he lands.

We pull up at the drop off outside the automatic doors to McCarran International Airport, and I briefly glance at the other travelers exiting the cars around us before I lean over and hug my mom goodbye.

“Thanks for the great week, Mom,” I tell her. “I’ve had a great time.”

“I’ll see you again before you leave, right?” She asks.

“Yes, I’ll be back next Friday,” I assure her.

“Have a wonderful time, sweetie, and tell Christian that Bob and I say hello,” She says. I promise that I will and get out the car, grabbing my luggage from the trunk before I step through the doors and into the terminal.

I’m running a little late, but thankfully Christian has booked me an early flight so the lines aren’t long at the counter which means it only takes me about 15 minutes to check my bag and get my tickets. With my winter coat draped over my arm, I pull my luggage behind me as I rush through the airport and security. When I make it to the gate, I find that they’ve already begun boarding, but I want to let Christian know I’m on the way before I get on the plane. I pull out my phone and I’m just about to text him, but the moment I select his name on the screen of my phone, he calls me.

“Hey, are you in Aspen? I’m just about to board,” I say as I answer the phone.

“Yeah, Kate just landed so Elliot is going to get her,” Christian says.

“Why didn’t she fly with you?”

“Her family was in Portland for something,” He says, and something changes in his voice. Suddenly, he sounds uneasy. “I need to tell you something.”

“What?” I ask apprehensively.

She’s here.”

“She?”

“Elena.”

“What?” I snap, but he’s unable to answer right away as he’s interrupted by his sister on the other end.

“I’ll be right there, Mia. Go wait with Kate and Elliot,” He says away from the phone before returning to speak to me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know until we got off the plane and they were waiting at baggage check for us. I thought they were in Arizona this week but when my Mom called to invite them, they said they would meet us here.”

“Oh.”

“Do you still want to come? I understand if you want to stay in Vegas. Maybe I can leave here early and spend the rest of the break there with you?”

I roll my eyes as I immediately dismiss the thought of him spending days, no matter how few, under the hawk-like watch and influence of the bitch troll.

“No, no. I still want to come,” I assure him.

“Good,” He says, and I hear the relief in his voice. “We have to get a bigger cabin with all the extra people, so we’re going try to make a new reservation and then go out to breakfast. I’m hoping by the time we’re finished, your plane will just be landing.”

“Who’s all there?”

“My family, the Lincolns, Kate and her brother…”

“Ethan is there?” I ask brightly. I can’t remember the last time I saw Ethan, that almost makes up for the inclusion of Mrs. Robinson in the trip.

“Yes,” Christian says. “Are you close with him?”

“Well, yeah. He’s my best friend’s older brother. I’ve known him since he was nine years old.”

“I see,” He says, and I pick up on the tightness in his voice. I sigh with frustration. I mean, I know he can be jealous and all, I saw that with Carter, but Ethan? The guy is like a brother to me.

May I have your attention please. This is the final boarding announcement for flight A1327, non-stop service to Aspen,” A disembodied voice announces over the intercom.

“I’ve got to go, Christian. My flight is about to leave without me.”

“Be safe,” He says.

“I will, see you soon. Bye,” I say, and I hang up the phone and hurry off to my flight.

I take my seat, on the aisle thankfully, and settle in for what is supposed to be a quick flight. I’m glad I’m leaving in the morning and not late afternoon because I think that I can sleep most of the way there. I know it’s probably smart to bank as much sleep as possible now before I’m left with Christian for the entire week. There is a blindfold in my carry on so I slip it over my eyes to block out the light and movement around me, and I’m asleep before the flight attendant finishes with the pre-flight safety announcement.

Attention passengers, we are making our final descent into Aspen, Colorado. Please make sure your trays are in the upright and locked position and please remain seated with your seat belt fastened for the remainder of the flight. We certainly hope you’ve enjoyed your flight with us today and thank you for flying United Airlines.”

The voice of the stewardess breaks into my unconsciousness, pulling me from my dreams. I lift the blindfold, squinting through the sunlight around me. It takes only ten more minutes before we’re on the ground and as soon as the plane comes to a stop I call my mom to tell her I’ve landed and then gather my things to de-board the flight.

The terminal is crowded, likely made worse by the fact everyone is wearing a huge coat. I pull the down jacket I bought with Kate last week over me, knowing it’s probably freezing outside. It takes me about  fifteen minutes to navigate my way through the unfamiliar airport to the doors that lead to baggage claim, but as soon as I make it to the waiting area, I see Christian standing there, waiting for me. I smile at him and rush forward into his open arms. He wastes no time before his lips quickly take mine in a deep, sensual kiss that is probably a little inappropriate for the public setting.

“I’ve missed you,” He whispers against my lips when he finally breaks the kiss.

“Me too,” I say, feeling a sense of relief wash over me, like all of my muscles are finally able to relax as a stress I didn’t know I was feeling is suddenly lifted.

“Ana!” I hear Kate say behind us and Christian exhales with irritation as he’s forced to relinquish me to her.

“Hi, Kate. How was your week?” I ask.

“Great! Are you excited for skiing? I can’t wait.”

“Banana!” Ethan calls, walking up beside us. He wraps his arms tightly, lifting me from the ground and swinging me around in a circle.

“Ethan, put me down!” I giggle as he sets me down and holds me at arm’s length as if to examine me.

“Hey, kid,” He says with a smile. “You look good.”

“You too. How was Italy?”

“Amazing. Wish I could have stayed there forever but I guess now I’m making my way back to lowly old University of Washington where I’ll have to look up at you in your Ivy League Ivory Tower and hope you won’t forget me.”

“Shut up,” I laugh, playfully slapping him in the arm. I feel Christian’s arm wrap around me and when I look up at him, I can see him glaring at Ethan, looking him up and down as if he’s sizing him up.

“We better get to the cabin,” Christian says to me, though he continues to look at Ethan. “My parents are waiting for us.”

“Okay,” I reply, giving a small apologetic smile to Ethan as Christian takes my hand and leads the way to baggage claim. I point out my suitcase as it comes around the carousel and Christian hands it to Elliot, who drags it along behind him as we make our way out to a rented black SUV in the parking garage.

“Shotgun!” Elliot calls once my bag is safely tucked in the back with the rest. Christian rolls his eyes at me while Elliot rushes forward to the passenger’s side. Kate, Ethan and I climb into the back and buckle in as Christian pulls out of the garage.

“So how’s Harvard, Banana?” Ethan asks. I feel Christian’s eyes looking at me through the rear-view mirror, but I ignore him.

“Great,” I respond. “Cambridge is beautiful and my classes last semester were really good.”

“I can’t believe you two went ivy,” Ethan says, wrapping his arms around Kate and I. “Freakin’ nerds.”

“Well, maybe if you spent a little more time studying math and science in high school instead of studying… anatomy, you’d be right there with us,” Kate says.

“But then I’d be lame like you, Sis,” He says. I laugh and look up to meet Christian’s eyes in the mirror. His gaze is cold as he stares at Ethan so I shrug awkwardly out from under his arm and direct the conversation to Elliot, who can’t seem to contain his excitement about hitting the mountain. He tells us about a new run that has opened since the last time they’ve been here until he is interrupted by Christian’s cell phone ringing.

Christian reaches into his pocket and pulls out his blackberry, looks down at the screen, but instead of answering, he rolls his eyes and hands the phone to Elliot.

“Hey, Dad,” Elliot answers. Hmmm… is Christian still not speaking with his father? “Yeah, just text me the address, we’ll put it into the GPS,” Elliot continues, and he hangs up. Several seconds later, the blackberry buzzes and Elliot types an address onto the screen on the dash. A robotic female voice comes over the stereo speakers and directs us step by step until we’re in front of a huge, storybook looking cabin.

There is a busy commotion as everyone is immediately in a rush to get out of the car. Elliot begins unstrapping several sets of skis from the roof of the SUV while Kate and Ethan open the back trunk and start pulling out suitcases. I step out onto the snow covered ground, glad I had the foresight to wear boots, and walk around the back of the car where Kate hands me a large duffle bag and a purple carry on suitcase that is mine. Christian helps me with the larger of my bags and we follow an overexcited Elliot into the house.

“Mom? Dad?” Elliot calls the moment he’s through the door.

“Ana’s here!” I hear Mia’s voice ring down through the hall. She rounds the corner into the hallway that leads to the front door and smiles broadly.

“Ana!” Mia calls, running forward and hugging me around the waist.

“Hey, Mia!” I giggle.

“You’ve got to see my new skiing outfit. It’s. so. awesome.”

“I can’t wait,” I say with a smile.

We follow Mia down the hall and enter into the living room/dining room combination. The kitchen is just off to our right and the first people I see are Carrick and Mr. Lincoln standing next to the breakfast bar talking to one another. Well, if Mr. Lincoln is right there, that must mean the bitch troll is lurking around here somewhere…

“Ana!” I hear Grace call from my left. I turn to look in the direction of her voice and see her setting a mug on a side table, getting up from a couch where she had been sitting with Mrs. Lincoln. Elena’s eyes glisten at me with malicious promise as Grace crosses the room and envelops me in a hug. I stare back stone faced at Elena so that she knows I’m not intimidated by her.

“We’re so happy for you and Christian, dear. You two seem so good for one another,” Grace says.

“Thank you, Grace,” I say, smiling at her. “And thank you for the Christmas gift you sent to Ray. It really was so unbelievably kind and I can’t tell you how much that will mean to him or how much it means to me. So thank-you.”

“We were happy to do it, dear,” Grace says.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Elliot says. “Ana’s great, Mom’s really nice… let’s go skiing. What are we sitting around for?”

“All in good time,” Carrick says, joining us from the kitchen. “Let us get settled in and relax for a while. It’s still early, son.”

Elliot groans as Carrick claps him on the back.

“Kate!” Grace says when she finally lets me go. Kate steps forward to hug Grace and I smile at the both of them until I notice Elena getting off the couch. As slyly as possible, I take a step to the right to place myself in between her and Christian.

“Katherine!” Elena coos as she too embraces Kate. “You look just as beautiful as ever.”

“Thank-you, Mrs. Lincoln,” Kate says brightly. “I’m so happy you and Mr. Lincoln decided to come.”

“Andrew and I just couldn’t miss an opportunity to spend time with the kids. Especially with Christian and Elliot away so often now,” She turns to look at Christian, who scowls at her, but she pays him no mind. Instead she releases Kate and turns to me, her tone noticeably cooler.

“Hello, Anastasia,” She says.

“Mrs. Lincoln,” I say in a tight voice. Oh what I wouldn’t give to not have Grace standing literally two feet away.

“We didn’t think you’d be able to make it. I know that you have budgeting constraints that Katherine doesn’t.”

I feel anger begin to boil inside of me as I feel Carrick’s eyes turn to me. What do I say? This is exactly the reason why I feel so uncomfortable with Christian paying for everything.

“Ana is here because I want her here. That’s all you need to worry about,” Christian says, and Elena’s smile turns into a grimace.

“Christian,” Grace chides him gently. “Speak more kindly, son.”

Christian rolls his eyes and leans down to pick up my duffle bag off the floor.

“What room can Ana and I take?” He asks.

“You and Elliot will be in the room next to Mia. Kate and Ana will sleep in the room next to the Lincolns, and Ethan, you can take the room at the end of the hall, dear.”

“Come on, Mom,” Elliot complains. “I don’t want to share a room with Christian, he sucks. Put him and Ana together and me and Kate together.”

“I don’t think so,” Grace says. “While you’re staying in the house with us, boys and girls won’t share rooms.”

“Grace,” Carrick says in a careful voice. “The boys are adults and this is their vacation too. If they want to share rooms with their girlfriends, they should be able to.”

“I don’t know, Carrick,” Elena says. “Is that the best example to set for Mia. She’s only thirteen and so impressionable.”

“Exactly,” Grace says, nodding appreciatively at Elena.

“Fine, Ana and I will get a hotel room,” Christian says, turning for the door.

“Son, wait,” Carrick says. Christian turns around and looks at him expectantly. “You and Ana may have the room next to the Lincolns.”

Christian nods once as his father waves us to the direction of the stairs. Elliot and Kate pick up their bags, walking awkwardly in front of us as we hear Carrick speak to Mia behind us.

“No sleepovers with boys until college,” He says, and she laughs.

Once we reach the top of the landing, Kate and Elliot take the first room on the right and Christian and I walk down the hall to the last room on the left. He ushers me inside and closes the door behind us.

“This week is going to be great!” He says sarcastically. “I’m sorry, Ana. They didn’t tell me she was coming or I wouldn’t have asked you to come.”

“I’m glad you asked me, Christian. She can only ruin this vacation if we let her.”

He snorts and my eyes narrow.

“What?”

“She’s in my Dad’s head. Thankfully, my Mom doesn’t care either way, she’s just ecstatic that I have a girlfriend. I think she’s overwhelmingly relieved I’m not gay. I can’t overstate how much that woman wants grandchildren.”

“Well if your Mom is happy, your Dad will come around. Who cares what Elena thinks?”

“You think I give a fuck what Elena thinks? She’s not worried that you’re a gold digger, Ana. She knows you’re not. She’s just pissed that I’m fucking you, and pissed off Elena is a force to be reckoned with. But it doesn’t matter, she can stay pissed and she can say or do whatever she wants. It’s not going to change anything. I’ll fuck you against this wall every night we’re here if she wants to play games with me.”

“Is that all we’re doing? Fucking?” I ask, and he narrows his eyes at me.

“Ana, please. You know that I …” But his sentence is cut off by three loud bangs on the door.

“Dude, let’s GO!” Elliot calls, and Christian rolls his eyes and takes my hand. We walk downstairs where the Grey family and the Lincolns are waiting, dressed in clothes fit for a day of skiing.

“Why aren’t you ready?” Elliot complains, looking at my jeans and Christian’s canvas shoes.

“Ana and I need to go into town. We’ll join you on the mountain tomorrow,” Christian says.

“You don’t want to ski?” Grace asks.

“Ana’s never been skiing. She needs equipment and some lessons before she tries a run,” He tells her. Grace nods her head but Elena exchanges a knowing glance with Carrick. I watch him glance worriedly to Christian and know that I’m going to have to deal with this whole money issue sooner rather than later.

“You snooze, you lose,” Elliot says, picking up his skis and turning for the door. The rest of the Greys follow after him.

“See you tonight?” Kate asks, a little disappointed that I’m not coming along.

“Absolutely. Have fun!” I say with a wave. She smiles at me and turns to leave, closing the door behind her. The second the door is closed, I feel Christian’s arms wrap around me, behind my lower back and knees, and I’m lifted from the ground. He darts to the stairs and I giggle as he carries me off to our room.

An hour later, we climb into the black SUV, dressed in warm, waterproof clothes and pull down the long street towards town. We pass several red brick and gray stone buildings that look like frosted gingerbread houses under the blanket of snow that lies over their roofs and ledges. Christian stops in front of a store with a rack of skis out front and I following him through the glass door that tinkles as we enter.

“Hello, how can I help you today?” A young man standing behind the counter asks as we begin to look through the displays around the store.

“What would you recommend for a beginner?” Christian asks, and the salesman nods and takes us to the front of the store.

“These are the Volkl Aurena Skis with Essensa 4motion 10.0 bindings. They’re light but carve well and they’re going to give you a smooth float with minimal energy expenditure. You’re not going to get the speed from these you’d get from say the Atomic Cloud Nine Arc Skis, but these are much easier to turn and handle off groomed trails. If you’re looking for a quality ski, but are just starting out, this is the way to go.”

“Good, we’ll take them.”

“Boots?” The salesman asks, taking my new skis of the rack.

“Yes,” Christian says, and the salesman leads us to a wall with shelves filled with boots and large boxes. I try on a few pairs, answering the salesman’s questions about the fit and how they feel until eventually I end up with a pair of black boots that feel clunky and rigid, but secure. Christian pulls a bright fuschia ski jacket off a rack for me because he thinks the sky blue down jacket I’m wearing won’t be as easy to see against the snow on the mountain, and we follow the eager salesman to the register.

I cringe when Christian swipes his credit card for $937.86. This isn’t going to make it easier to squash this whole money issue with Carrick, but Christian has been adamant throughout the entire store that I need my own, fitted equipment, not some generic rental. Part of me wonders if the most important issue to quell is Christian’s idea that he needs to buy my affection, not Carrick’s concerns about my intentions with Christian’s money.

“Thank-you,” I say meekly once we’re in the car.

“You’re welcome,” He says, leaning over to the passenger’s seat and kissing me gently. He pulls out of the parking lot and drives to the ski resort on the outskirts of town. I step out of the car onto the hard packed snow and look up at Aspen Mountain looming overhead. I can see tiny dots of black that are the skiers flying down the white face of the mountain and the speed and the way they move is both awe inspiring and overly intimidating. A rush of fear swells inside of me and, for a moment, I think maybe my mom was right and skiing isn’t the best idea for me.

“Ready?” Christian asks when he’s taken my new skis off the roof of the car. I reach out and take them from him, nod my head hesitantly, and he turns to lead the way towards the lodge.

Once we get our lift passes, we head out to a wide flat area that lies at the base of several runs. While I strap into my boats and secure my skis, skiers and snowboarders whisk their way through the open area on their way down the hill or on their way to the lifts on either side of the clearing. I look at both of the chair lifts uncertainly, not sure if I’m ready for this, but Christian doesn’t lead me to either of them. Instead he takes me to a small area that is more of a gradual slope than a hill by any standards with a simple mechanical tow rope coming up the side and spends the next hour showing me how to keep my skis straight, how to turn, and most importantly, how to stop.

“Bend your knees a little,” He instructs as he moves alongside of me, far too graceful as he glides over the snow. “That’s it. Now, make the ‘v’ with your skis to stop, slowly now… Excellent! Well done, Anastasia.”

I exhale with relief as I manage to come to a full stop without ending up on my rear-end. He works patiently with me until I can manage the steepest parts of the incline without trouble.

“Do you think you’re ready for an easy run?” He asks hesitantly.

“I think so,” I reply, unsure. Even though I managed this without falling, the slopes are another matter entirely, and all I can see as I watch people race down the mountain side is the opportunity for pain.

“I won’t leave your side, baby,” He promises, nodding in the direction of the nearest lift. Digging my poles into the snow, I follow after him. We wait patiently together as the lift comes around and picks up group after group of nervous looking skiers. It doesn’t escape my attention that most of the people in line with us are small children with their parents. When it’s our turn, I glide forward and look nervously back at the chair coming for us.

“Hold your poles in your left hand and reach back with your right to grab the lift,” Christian tells me. I do as he says and am relieved when the chair hits me in the back of the knees, effectively doing all the work for me by forcing me to sit down. We are swept away from the ground and into the air, the chair swaying slightly as the track above us tugs us forward.

“I love it up here,” Christian says as he relaxes into the seat. “Snow is quiet and there’s almost a tranquility in the solitude of it all.”

“Yeah,” I agree, looking down at the snow covered branches of trees that sparkle in the sunlight beneath us. “It’s beautiful.”

“You’re beautiful,” He says. I smile, and he leans over, kissing me deeply. I welcome his tongue into my mouth and revel in the bliss of the feeling of his lips on mine as we gently sway over the slopes of Aspen mountain. When he pulls away from me, he glances forward assessing the distance we have left until the lift ends and then turns back to me.

“When it’s time to get off, keep your knees bent and your skis straight. Your poles won’t help you so just hold them in your hand and keep them off the ground. When it’s time to get off all you’ll need to do is stand up.”

“I feel like this is one of those things that’s easier said than done,” I say nervously. I can see the end now and the chair ends at the top of a high slope. One by one, the skiers in front of us stand and disappear as they move forward down what I can only guess is a hill on the other side.

“I’ll be right here if you need help,” Christian says. I nod and focus all of my concentration on the pending challenge ahead. The chair in front of us swivels out of the way and it’s our turn. I mimic Christian, letting my skis dangle over of the snowy mound ahead of us, and the moment I feel the skis touch the snow, Christian puts his hand under my left elbow and gently pulls me forwards in a gesture for me to stand. I follow after him and, with the help of his firm grip on my arm, manage to keep my balance and ski gently down below, successfully stopping myself only when I’m out of the path of the skiers departing the lift behind us.

“Well done, baby,” Christian says, and I smile back.

He skis forward and I follow him around a curve to the start of the run. It’s much more steep than the area he took me to practice, but under his gentle, encouraging instruction, I manage to make it down without falling. We do the run several more times and as I become more and more comfortable, I begin feel an excited elation in the speed and the smoothness of the snow beneath my skis when we race down the mountain. As my excitement grows, so does my confidence, and it ultimately makes me a better skier. When I am finally able to make it down without any help from Christian at all, he starts giving me more space. I watch him as much as I can, impressed as he seemingly does everything possible to make the easy run more challenging. He skis up onto the side of the mountain, takes the sides of the run that have drops in them, and as I watch him I wonder if he’s bored being stuck here with me all day. Clearly he’s a great skier, he probably wishes he was on the more difficult runs with Elliot and Kate.

“Do you want to try something a little more challenging?” I ask when we make it to the bottom of the hill.

“Oh, you’re not ready for that yet,” He says. “Difficulty in ski runs isn’t gradual, Anastasia. There is a huge difference between this run and the intermediate run and until I know you’re comfortable enough to keep a cool head if you get into some trouble, we’re going to stay right where we are.”

I frown but he leans down to kiss me gently.

“You’re doing great. I’m very impressed,” He says gently, eliciting a smile from me. “I’m also very hungry and it’s starting to get dark so what do you say we call it a night, head back to the house, and eat and relax for the rest of the night?”

“You’re done already?” I complain. Now that I’m not as scared of falling, I’m really starting to see how fun this is.

“We’ll be back first thing in the morning. Trust me, Elliot will have us all up at daybreak,” He promises. I nod and ski next to him back to the the lodge. We rent a locker to store our equipment in overnight and as Christian walks hand in hand with me back to the SUV, I notice how strange it is to feel my boots move. I guess it doesn’t take long to get used to the rigidness of the ski boots.

When we get back to the car, Christian opens my door for me and I stare out the window back at the lights of the resort as we pull down the hill. Snow begins to fall as we stop in front of the cabin. Each of the windows are brightly lit as if they are welcoming us home in the coming snow storm. Christian grips tightly to my hand as we hurry through the cold breeze to the front door. Now that the sun has gone completely down, it’s really quite cold out here.

“They’re back!” I hear Mia call when we step through the front door. The cabin is warm and filled with delicious smells wafting from the kitchen, which stoke the intensity of my hunger. Christian takes my coat to hang on the already overloaded rack next to the door, and by the time I’m out of my boots, Mia, Kate, and Elliot round the corner.

“So how was it?” Kate asks as we walk forward to the living room.

“Fun!” I say. “I’m excited to get out there again tomorrow.”

“But you did okay? You didn’t fall or anything?”

“No. Christian is a great teacher,” I say with a smile. Kate hooks her arm through mine and we lead the way to the kitchen where Grace is pulling large bowls out of the cabinet and serving a hot chicken and cheese tortellini soup. Christian and I sit at the table listening to Mia talk about her first perfectly executed jump on the mountain today. It sounds like everyone had a great time and again, I worry about Christian missing out on the fun.

“It’s just a shame you had to miss out on so many family memories that were made today,” Elena says to Christian, vocalizing my fears as she stirs her soup with a spoon.

“Ana and I had a wonderful time today, Mrs. Lincoln,” Christian says. “I’m very happy with this afternoon.”

“You’ll come on the mountain with us tomorrow though, won’t you, Ana?” Mia asks.

“Maybe,” Christian replies for me. “We’ll have to see when Ana is ready to go on the harder runs.”

“Not all of us can be expert skiers like you,” I tell her, and she smiles brightly back at me.

After dinner Elliot and Kate suggest we all go out and sit in the hot tub. We head upstairs to change into swimming suits, but Christian tells me to go ahead without him.

“I just want to have a word with Elena,” He says darkly, when no one else can hear us.

“Don’t,” I tell him, but he shakes his head.

“I’ll meet you down there in a minute.”

I sigh and head up the stairs to our room to change alone. Thankfully, Kate had the foresight that something like this may happen last week so one of the things I bought was a new swimsuit. I slip into the black and white polka dot bikini and then wrap a huge white bath towel around me, push my feet into the slippers that came with the room, and make my way down the stairs. Grace and Mr. Lincoln are seated in the living room so I assume Christian was able to pull Elena aside, and as I make my way through the house, I find myself peering around corners and listening intently, trying to discover where they are.

Grace smiles at me as I step through the back french doors onto a large deck. I peer through the flakes of falling snow and see there is a staircase off the right that I think leads to the hot tub where I can already hear Kate, Elliot, and Ethan. Off the the left, Carrick is leaning over the railing talking on his cell phone.

“Send the brief over to me and I’ll look it over this evening,” He says. I watch him hang up the phone as I turn to walk down the stairs but after a moment’s hesitation and surge of courage, I decide on something else.

“Mr. Grey,” I say, turning around to face him. He smiles when he sees me and puts his phone in his pocket.

“Anastasia,” He says with a nod. “You better get down there, it’s freezing out here.”

“Yes, sir,” I say. “But first, I was hoping I could talk to you for a moment.”

“Of course,” He says. “What is it?”

“I just want you to know that I really like your son,” I say, and he smiles.

“That’s wonderful to hear, dear.”

“I know you’ve had some concerns because Christian and I come from very different backgrounds but I’m not interested in him because he’s wealthy.”

Carrick’s face wrinkles with discomfort so I continue without offering him the chance to speak.

“Christian is kind, and smart, and generous, and he makes me feel like the most important girl in the world. I wouldn’t care if he didn’t have a penny to his name. It’s a privilege just to know him and even more to be his girlfriend because of who he is, not what he has. He’s an amazing man. I think… I think I’m falling in love with him and I hope that both you and Grace know that I would never do anything to take advantage of him or to hurt him in any way.”

He scrutinizes me for a moment but his eyes soften and he nods.

“Thank-you for sharing that with me, Ana. Christian has had a rough past and both Grace and I worry about him all the time. I suppose we’re a little overprotective so I appreciate you coming to speak with me. I am truly happy that he found you. I can see that you make him happy and in the end, the only thing I want for my son is happiness.”

“Me too, sir.”

“Please, Ana. Call me Carrick.”

“Carrick,” I correct myself. He smiles, and gives me a brief hug.

“Now get down there with the other kids and enjoy yourself.”

“I will,” I tell him, and I turn around and walk down the stairs. Kate, Elliot, and Ethan all sit around the edge talking animatedly so, once I’m down the stairs, I hang my towel on a peg by the wall and slowly sink into the steamy water. For the next few minutes I tell Kate about my first day skiing until Christian appears behind me and dips into the water at my side.

“How did it go?” I ask when the others are distracted by Elliot’s description of a new movie coming out that he wants to see.

“She’s not backing down,” He says in a low voice, and I nod, knowing that would be the outcome.

“I spoke with your Dad just now,” I tell him, and his eyes widen with fear.

“What did he say to you?” He asks, trying to suppress anger.

“Nothing,” I assure him. “I wanted to talk to him.”

“Why?”

“I just wanted him to know why I’m here.”

He gazes at me, unsure for a moment, so I lean over and press my lips to his. It’s soft and innocent at first but quickly develops into something deeper and more sensual.

“Ugh, you guys are disgusting now,” Elliot says as Christian’s hand brushes into my hair. He pulls away from me and turns to look sardonically at his brother.

“Your face is disgusting,” Christian says.

Elliot snorts before slamming his hand down into the water, drenching Christian and I. I giggle as Christian retaliates with his own wave of water and, while the two of them go at it, I move out of the splash zone, relax, and sit content with the knowledge that Elena can’t use Christian’s parents against me any longer.

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