Chapter 01

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My body is in full out mutiny. A few days after I arrived back in Cambridge, I was hit hard by what I thought was just allergies until I was forced to go to the doctor to get a stronger dose of Claritin and I found out that my hayfever had turned into a severe sinus infection. As a result, I’ve spent days struggling to breathe and feeling as though my head’s in the clouds. It’s been absolutely miserable, and now, as I drag myself out of the library after I’ve finished with work, I feel like I’d prefer to curl up in a ball right here on the sidewalk and let death have me, rather than continue the 30 more feet I have to go to where Luke is waiting for me behind the wheel of my brand new Lexus RX.

Thankfully, I think he realizes I’m struggling because once he sees me, he darts out of the driver’s seat, opens the passenger door for me, and helps me inside.

“You good?” He asks, probably wondering if I’m going to pass out in the passenger’s seat. I nod as I pull the seatbelt down over me and he gives me a sympathetic look before closing the door. While I wait for him to get back in the car and then to pull out on the street, I lean my head against the cool window next to me, and try to take some pleasure in the fact that at least I’m not upright anymore. Not being able to breathe means I haven’t slept much in days and I am completely and utterly exhausted. With any luck, I’ll be able to get a few seconds of sleep on the way home.

“You shouldn’t have gone to work today,” Luke says disapprovingly as we make the loop back around to Bryant Street.

“I had to,” I mumble. “The new library aide is awful and we’re already so behind on everything…” There’s more to my argument, but talking seems to take more energy than I have to give, so I let my sentence trail off and relax deeper into my seat. I can see Luke shaking his head out of the corner of my eye, but he doesn’t press the issue further. As we pull up to a stop light, I close my eyes and begin drifting in and out for the rest of the drive home.

When we get back to my house, I reluctantly slump out of the car and through the sliding glass door to the kitchen where I find Kate standing over the stove stirring a steaming pot that fills the room with the comforting smell of chicken soup.

“Hey!” She greets me. “Happy almost birthday!”

I groan and collapse into a chair at the table. “Don’t remind me.”

“It’s a little soon to be dreading birthdays, isn’t it?” She asks. “You’re only twenty-two for Christ sake.”

“It’s not that I’m getting older. It’s that I’m going to see Christian for the first time in eleven days tomorrow and we’re going to end up spending my birthday in bed watching Netflix with a box of tissues and a bottle of Mucinex rather than… well, you know.”

“The travesty,” Kate says dramatically, placing a bowl of soup in front of me. I try to laugh, but that quickly devolves into a coughing fit. She reaches over to rub my back, looking worried, while Luke moves across the kitchen to get me a glass of orange juice from the fridge.

“So when does Christian get here?” Kate asks when I’ve finally regained control of my breathing again.

“Tomorrow night,” I croak, and while I attempt to swallow a spoonful of soup, she raises an eyebrow at me.

“Tomorrow night? You mean, he’s not going to spend the day with you?”

I shake my head. “Elena’s sentencing is tomorrow morning, so he’s not flying out here until it’s over.”

“You mean, he’s missing most of your birthday just so he can sit in a courtroom and watch Elena Lincoln get sentenced to prison?” She asks, clearly disapproving. “You’re okay with that?”

“Are you kidding? That’s my birthday present. He’s going to record the whole thing on his phone and we’re going to watch it together over a bowl of popcorn.” Kate looks back at me, not buying my cavalier attitude, and I sigh. The truth is, it was at my insistence that he’s staying. The date had originally been set for this last Tuesday, but it got pushed back due to a scheduling error in the courts. When Christian found out it was going to be on my birthday, he said he was going to skip it but I told him he should go.

“I think… I think he needs to be there,” I tell Kate. “He needs to see it happen in order for him to feel like it’s real, and I get that. I’d feel better if I could be there too, and maybe I would have been if I literally didn’t feel like I was about to die, but here we are… He’s going to be here the whole weekend anyway. I’m fine.”

I take a deep breath and massage the dip between my eye and the bridge of my nose, trying to relieve some of the sinus pressure, and I hear Kate sigh and then drop her spoon into her bowl.

“You know what? You’re not going to be sans-boyfriend AND sick on your birthday.” She says. “That’s not how twenty-two starts for you. Come with me.”

“Wha-” I begin, but my words are cut off as she yanks me out of my chair and pulls me towards the stairs.

“Luke!” I complain. “Stop her! You’re supposed to be protecting me.”

“Sorry, I’m off the clock,” He calls after me. “See you tomorrow, Ana.”

I’m just able to glare at him and his overly amused smile as Kate pulls me up the stairs, then through her bedroom and into the bathroom. The second the door is closed behind me, she turns the water on in the shower all the way to hot and then begins rummaging in the cabinets beneath her sink. The room fills with steam as she hands me first a bottle of vitamin C tablets, and then some fish oil capsules. I take both of them with some water from the bathroom sink while she sets a large, needleless syringe on the counter.

“What’s that for?” I ask dubiously.

“Your sinuses. I’m going to go make you some tea, get in the shower and breathe in the steam,” She tells me. I hesitate for a minute but she doesn’t wait around to convince me. I really just want to go to bed but… if whatever she’s going to do makes it so that I feel even a fraction better tomorrow when Christian arrives, I suppose I’m willing to try anything. I miss him, a lot, and I want to be healthy and alert while he’s here. We’ve only been apart for ten days and it’s been harder than I thought it would be. I’ve been counting down the days for his return almost from the moment he left, and now that it’s nearly here, I’m sick. All I want is to enjoy my birthday with him and, if this is going to make me feel better so that can be a possibility, I’ll do it. With a sigh of defeat, I strip down, put my hair in a bun on top of my head, and step into the too hot water.

A few minutes later, Kate returns, and I listen to her moving things around on the bathroom counter for a moment, but it’s too hard to focus on the sounds to try and figure out what she’s doing.

“Cover your boobs,” She says, but before I can even react to that, she pulls the shower curtain open and I stumble backwards in surprise.

“Jesus, Kate,” I say indignantly as I fold my arms over my chest. She ignores me and holds out the syringe which is now filled with murky water.

“What is that?” I ask, suspiciously.

“Just put it in your nose and force the water through. It’ll clean everything out.”

“Gross,” I protest.

“Just do it,” She says, shoving the syringe into my hand and harshly yanking the curtain closed. I stare down at it warily, drops of water dripping from the tip of my nose onto the plastic resting in my palm as I work up the nerve to do it.

“Ana…” Kate cajoles me. Pushing my reluctance aside, I lift the tube to my right nostril and push the plunger upward. It feels like fire at first and leaves the taste of salt and something astringent in my mouth. I gag as the water pours through my other nostril and then start coughing and choking. Once I’ve regained control of my breathing though, I take a deep breath through my nose and, for the first time in days, find it unobstructed.

“Oh my god,” I say, actually shocked as I take another deep breath.

“I told you,” Kate says. “Now hand it back so you can do the other one.”

I do, and once I’ve finished with the flush and Kate feels I’ve stood under the hot water long enough, she lets me out of the shower and hands me a cup of tea. I take it and head back to my room to get dressed, and a few minutes later, Kate comes in with the humidifier. I crawl into bed, feeling an immediate sense of relief, and while she adds a few drops of peppermint oil into the filter, I take a sip of my tea.

It’s terrible.

“Kate,” I cough, as my mouth is filled with something spicy, bitter, and sour all at the same time. “What did you put in this?”

“A lot of stuff,” She shrugs as she turns on the switch and the humidifier hums to life. “Cayenne pepper, ginger, apple cider vinegar… I know it’s gross, but it’s my mom’s secret cure. Drink it and I promise you’ll feel better.”

“I can’t drink this!” I argue.

“Suit yourself,” She says as she gets to her feet. “I just thought you didn’t want to be sick when Christian got here tomorrow.”

I frown down at it and then reach up to plug my nose and throw it back. It’s worse than when I used to take shots of bottom shelf tequila and burns just as much. I cough again once I get it all down, and then thrust the mug onto the bedside table, as far away from me as possible. Kate picks it up, and then hands me a glass of water and the bottle of antibiotics I’d got from the doctor.

“I’m sorry you’re sick, but, trust me, you’re going to feel better tomorrow,” She says, leaning over to kiss me on the forehead. “Happy birthday, Annie”

“Thanks, Katie,” I reply. She smiles down at me and then turns to leave the room. The moment the light is off, I immediately feel myself begin to drift off into much need sleep, but I’m jerked back awake by the sound of my phone vibrating on the nightstand. I don’t even look at the screen before I reach over and put the phone to my ear.

“You’re late.”

“Late?” Christian responds. “It’s only five o’clock. I haven’t even left my office yet.”

“It’s five o’clock in Seattle, but it’s eight o’clock here and I’m already in bed.”

“Already, huh? Still not feeling well?”

“Not yet, but Kate did some kind of voodoo witchcraft on me that’s supposed to make me feel better overnight. She said I shouldn’t be alone AND sick on my birthday.”

There’s a pause. “I should be there when you wake up. I can still fly out tonight…”

“No, it’s okay. You need to be there,” I yawn. “What time do you have to be at the courthouse in the morning?”

“Nine. And, I’ll get on a plane as soon as it’s finished, promise.”

“Okay,” I reply. My eyes are beginning to droop as the overwhelming exhaustion begins to catch up to me again.

“I do have plans for you tomorrow though,” He tells me. “Do you think you’ll be well enough to do anything, or should I re-evaluate?”

“Depends. What do you have planned?” I ask, and he laughs as he picks up on the suggestion in my voice.

“Plenty of that…” He says, “But a few other things you can do with your clothes on, too.”

“Seems like a waste…” I reply airily.

“You have a one track mind, Anastasia.”

“I wonder why that is?” I ask pointedly, but when he replies, his tone is overtly innocent.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It couldn’t possibly be because of a series of rather explicit text messages and about a dozen or so picture requests from a certain Seattle billionaire…”

“I have a beautiful girlfriend who is currently living 3000 miles away from me. Can you blame me?”

“No, and that’s why I think you should keep your plans focused. Unless for some weird reason, you’re not into sick girls or something…”

“You have a sinus infection, Anastasia. You’re not contagious and I haven’t seen you in almost two weeks. There is no scenario that doesn’t end with me making love to you as long as we can both physically handle tomorrow night.”

“Mmm,” I moan appreciatively. “Well, in that case, plan what you will. I’m open for anything, sick or ‘s my birthday and I want to enjoy it.”

“Healthy plans it is then. Now, get some sleep. You won’t get much tomorrow night…”

“Promises, promises,” I tell him. “I can’t wait to see you. I love you, Christian.”

“I love you too. Happy birthday, baby.”

“Thank you. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

I hang up the phone and then stare sadly at the still illuminated screen for a moment before putting it back on the nightstand and rolling over to cuddle into my blankets and drift off into a surprisingly restful night of sleep.

The next morning though, I’m very suddenly jerked awake by Kate jumping onto my bed.

“Happy Birthday!” She screams.

“Oh my god!” I gasp as I shoot bolt upright. The second I’m off the pillow she envelops me in a tight hug.

“I let you sleep in, but you’ve got to get up and get ready to go. We’re on a tight schedule.”

“A schedule for what?” I groan, struggling out of her arms so that I can collapse back into my pillows.

“I’m not going to ruin Christian’s surprise, just get out of bed and get ready,” She says, and although I want to tell her to leave me alone and let me sleep some more, Christian’s name peaks my interest.

“What do you mean Christian’s surprise?” I ask. “Wait! Is he here?”

“Well, no…” She says. “But you didn’t really think he was going to ignore your birthday until he got here tonight, did you? He just called and gave me all the details, so let’s go!”

I sit there, looking at her blankly for a moment as I try and sort through both the last dregs of the drowsiness I feel from being awoken so suddenly and what she’s actually telling me. Christian did say he had plans, but I thought he meant plans with him. I hadn’t thought much about what I was going to do before he got here. I’d mostly planned on staying in bed to take this last opportunity to recover. But now, as I become more and more alert and take a moment to assess how I’m actually feeling this morning, I realize that I feel… better. Nearly completely better, in fact. I can breathe, my head doesn’t feel clogged, there’s no lingering pain in my sinuses… Kate’s mom’s tea really must be some kind of miracle brew and this realization, coupled with the prospect of Christian’s secret birthday plans, causes a smile to begin slowly creeping across my lips.

I quickly pull back the covers, lean over to wrap Kate in a hug while I thank her profusely and kiss her on the cheek, and then scramble out of bed for my bathroom so that I can get ready for the day. I’m not sure what Christian has planned, so I take more time on my hair and makeup than I have since I’ve been back to Cambridge, just in case he plans on making any surprise appearances, and once I’m finished, I get dressed and hurry out of my bedroom.

The excitement builds as I make my way down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time, and then peaks when I make it far enough down so that I can see the living room. The entire room is filled with what must be hundreds of red roses covering every flat surface. I stare at them for a moment, feeling completely shocked. It’s beautiful and completely over the top. How did he set this up from Seattle?

Kate is bouncing with giddy excitement in the corner holding something in her hands so I walk towards her and take the card she hands me.

There are 997 roses here. One for every day I’ve loved you. I can’t wait to fill the room with a million more.

I love you, Anastasia Steele. I’ll see you tonight.

Happy Birthday.

-Christian

Ps. There will be a car arriving to pick you up at 8:30.

 

My teeth sink into my bottom lip as I read his sweet words, but then frown when I remember the time. It’s nearly 8:30 now…

“There’s breakfast in here, if you want it,” Kate tells me. “Luke’s already helped himself.”

I follow her into the kitchen where I find Luke seated at the dining room table digging into a stack of blueberry pancakes and bacon. He looks up when we come around the corner though and immediately bolts out of his chair to wrap me in a hug.

“You look better,” He tells me and I smile back at him.

“I feel better. A lot better.”

“That’s awesome, and hey… Happy birthday!”

“Thanks. I see you’ve wasted no time getting to the food.”

“Are you kidding me? We’re in for such a long day, you should eat something too.”

“You know what we’re doing?” I ask.

“Of course I do. I’m your security, Ana. I received a very long briefing last night from Mr. Grey himself.”

“What is it?” I press him, knowing he isn’t as good at keeping secrets as Kate is because he doesn’t take pleasure in knowing things other people don’t, but he shakes his head.

“I’m not telling you anything except that you need to eat some breakfast…. And that you have something on your shirt.”

“On my shirt?” I ask, looking down to where he’s pointing, but the second I tilt my head down, he flicks his finger up into my nose and then laughs.

“I hate you,” I say, though the words lose all meaning as I can’t stop myself from laughing.

At exactly 8:30, a long stretch limo pulls up in front of the house and Kate practically yanks me out of my seat to pull me out the front door. Luke has to lock up while Kate and I sprint across the yard and I let out an elated shriek when we open the door of the limo and balloons begin pouring out and float up into the sky.

“This is ridiculous,” Luke says, glancing up at the balloons that have gotten away as we climb into the back of the car.

“Ridiculous?” I ask, indignantly. “Tell me, is it all happiness that bothers you, or just mine?” He rolls his eyes.

“That’s not happiness, that’s just long distance littering.”

“Kate, did we bring umbrellas?” I ask, turning away from Luke.

“No, why?”

“Because Luke over here is trying to rain on my parade,” Luke shoves me as Kate giggles and then wraps me under her arm, holding up her phone to take pictures of the three of us as we pull out into the street.

The limo takes us into downtown Boston and to a new place called Trapped. We’re met on the sidewalk by the manager who leads us inside and allows us to pick a theme for the game we’re going to play. We choose a 1920s mob scenario and then are locked in a room where we have to solve a series of clues and puzzles in order to escape. It’s really intricate, with several staff members playing characters that try to throw us off and sometimes just scare us. There’s climbing, and running, and all kinds of obstacles we have to work our way through, and it takes hours for us to finally solve the mystery and escape the room, but it’s one of the funnest things I’ve ever done.

When we leave Trapped, the limo takes us to a fancy restaurant downtown where we’re led to a private table and brought a bottle of a 2003 Brut Rose Cristal, which the waiter makes sure to tell us is compliments of Mr. Grey. After we’ve placed our orders, I pull out my phone to text Christian a quick thank you.

We had so much fun at Trapped! Thank you for the champagne, everything has been perfect so far.

His response is almost immediate.

I’m glad. I’m on my way to the airport now, see you in a few hours. I love you.

I love you too!

After lunch, our driver takes us down to Newbury Street, where all of the best shopping in Boston is located. I can tell Luke feels uncomfortable as we pull up in front of our first stop, Agent Provocateur, and I can understand why. This isn’t exactly the place I’d most like to go shopping with him, but my hesitation is pushed aside when the doors open and a man in a pristine suit greets us with a single red rose and a card.

“Miss Steele?” He asks.

“Yes,” I say, walking quickly up to him. He smiles and hands me the rose and the card, which I read as we’re led inside.

I’ve taken the liberty of picking out a few things I want you to have, but please feel free to buy anything, and I truly mean anything, your heart desires.

-Christian

“These are the things Mr. Grey has already set aside for you Miss Steele,” The salesman tells me, and as I look up from the note, I don’t know whether to shake my head, or laugh. The counter is completely covered in dozens of light pink boxes and bags, tied up in stain black ribbon, all with the slanted script that spells the store name over the front.

“Is there anything he didn’t buy?” I ask, as I look into the first few gift bags and see a lot of black, see-through lace.

“Most of Mr. Grey’s purchases were from our Naughty line,” The salesman tells me. “But I’d be happy to show you some of our everyday wear, or perhaps some select pieces from our nightwear collection?”

“I think we can handle it,” Kate says, kindly. I shoot her a grateful glance. I’m not sure how comfortable I am having a salesman help me pick out underwear…

Since Christian has me more than stocked up on lingerie, I pick out a few bras and a silk robe and give in on the far too expensive bikini Kate says I have to buy. I frown as the salesman rings it up and I look at the price reflected on the credit card machine in front of me. The top and the bottoms of the swimsuit alone are $215 each! That’s nearly five hundred dollars for an amount of fabric I could ball up into one fist. Kate continues to gush though as we leave the store, so I pacify my concerns by telling myself that Christian will probably like it. It did make my cleavage look really great…

After Agent Provocateur, we head down the street to Chanel, where Christian has picked out a black, quilted handbag with the double C logo sewn into the front, and a gorgeous gray tweed jacket that fits me like a glove. It’s harder to get Kate out of that store than it was Agent Provocateur, and as we leave, I wonder who has more bags between us…

“I think you might have missed a pair of boots, Kate,” Luke teases her as he places our bags in the back of the car. I laugh but Kate’s eyes widen with something close to panic.

“Where?” She asks. Both Luke and I roll our eyes, and hook our arms through hers to pull her back into the limo, where she pouts the entire way down the street.

Our final stop is at Tiffany’s where I’m immediately handed an iconic blue box wrapped up in a white ribbon. He’s left me another card telling me to pick something out for myself and for Kate which sends Kate into a flurry of excitement as she begins combing through the cases. While she’s distracted, I place the gift from Christian on the counter, untie the bow, and gently ease off the lid. I gasp as I see the diamond encrusted watch inside, with the Tiffany blue face and the thin platinum links that make up the bracelet.

“It’s beautiful,” The woman standing behind the counter tells me. “Your boyfriend has excellent taste.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty incredible,” I say, looking up and smiling at her. She helps me fasten the watch around my wrist and then places the box in a bag for me so that I can look through the rest of the inventory with Kate.

It feels a little weird buying jewelry for myself, especially diamonds which seem to dominate the displays, but apparently the staff have been instructed not to let me leave without something so I decide to follow Kate around, knowing she’ll have plenty of opinions anyway. When I catch up with her though, I find her staring sadly down at a case of engagement rings. We haven’t talked much about the fact that Elliot didn’t end up proposing in Hawaii, but looking at her now, I think it’s getting to her more than I thought…

“Everything okay?” I ask and she takes a deep breath and then gives me a tight lipped smile.

“Yeah. Do you want to look at necklaces?”

“Uh… sure,” I say awkwardly. She nods and then looks forlornly down at the engagement rings one last time before pushing off from the case and walking across the store.

Ultimately, I decide on a necklace with an infinity pendant that the store clerk adds mine and Christian’s birthstones to. Luke takes our bags out to the car, placing them with the rest of our purchases, while Kate gushes over my watch and we climb into the back of the limo. As we pull down the street and make our way towards what Luke tells us is our last stop of the day, I look anxiously down at the clock on my cell phone. It’s 3:30 and I know that Christian is in the air, but I’m ready for him to get here. I’ve had a perfect morning and afternoon with Kate and Luke, but at the end of the day, Christian is the person I want to spend my birthday with.

The limo takes us to a spa where Kate and I get 90 minute massages. It’s hard to enjoy though, as I keep checking my new watch every few minutes. Time seems to have slowed down and even while we’re getting facials and are literally forced to lie still while the esthetician attacks our faces with product and a weird suction wand, I still feel keyed up.

I’m practically bouncing in my seat as we climb into the limo and make our way further into downtown Boston. I look anxiously out the windows as we weave through the streets, almost as though I expect to see Christian standing on the sidewalk waiting for me. By the time we pull into the drop off lane at the Four Seasons, the built up anticipation has me ready to explode. I look up at the gold letters mounted on the tall brick face of the building, smiling broadly, but when the door opens, Luke pulls me back to prevent me from getting out.

“Miss Kavanagh,” The driver says, gesturing for her to get out of the limo. “Mr. Grey has asked me to inform you that his brother is waiting for you upstairs and that he wishes you both a wonderful weekend.”

“In other words,” Luke interjects. “Don’t come home.”

Kate looks a little shocked, but I just shrug when she turns to face me. I’m not sure why Christian has put Kate and Elliot up in a fancy hotel for a weekend, but right now the only thing I can focus on are the words, “his brother is waiting for you upstairs”. Is, not will be. Elliot’s here. And if Elliot is here, that means Christian is too.

“Have a good weekend,” I say quickly, hoping she doesn’t feel like I’m pushing her out the door even though that’s really exactly what I’m doing.

“You too,” She tells me, leaning over to hug me good-bye. A tight smile crosses her lips as she pulls away and then she waves to Luke before stepping out of the limo and closing the door behind her.

Once we’re back in Cambridge, the limo stops at Luke’s apartment and he gives me a sly, knowing smile as he exits, which I try to ignore but am quickly betrayed by the growing blush in my cheeks.

“Happy Birthday, Ana,” He tells me.

“Thanks, Luke,” I reply and as he begins to smile again, making it awkward once more because I know he knows what I’m about to go do. I shake my head and reach out for the handle on the door.

“See you later, buddy,” I tell him and he laughs as the door closes and the limo begins to pull away from the curb.

The lights are on in the house when I get back and as the car comes to a stop, I peer through the windows, already looking for him. There’s a movement in the dining room, someone walking in from the kitchen, and while it’s hard to make out who it is through the darkly tinted glass, I know it’s Christian.

He’s here.

The car stops and I bolt out of the back door, but am called back by the driver who reminds me I’ve left all my bags from the day of shopping in the trunk. Reluctantly, I walk back down to the curb, refuse his offer of help to carry everything inside, and instead hold out my arms for him to load me up. Once the last bag is hooked over my wrist, he wishes me a happy birthday, so I thank him for helping us get around and then reach into my wallet for the cash I have stashed inside so that I can tip him. I only have $100 bill, but at this point I’m more concerned about getting inside than over tipping the driver. When I hand it to him, he thanks me profusely until I turn around and hurry up the walk, struggling slightly with the door as it’s difficult to open while I’m so ladened down with bags. Eventually though, I’m able to twist the handle and ease it open so that I can step inside.

“Ow, fuck!” I hear Christian hiss from the dining room. I watch him quickly pull his hand away from the candle he’s lighting on the table, the charred match falling onto the wood surface below as he lifts the tip of the finger to his mouth. His attention is caught when the door closes behind me and when he looks up, he seems surprised to see me.

“Hi, baby,” He says. “You’re early.”

I don’t respond. Instead, I let the bags fall to the floor at my feet and I bolt across the room and leap into his open arms. While I press myself as firmly into him as possible, my lips find his and I pour nearly two weeks of longing into him.

“I missed you,” I whisper, breaking the kiss only long enough to speak the words. He moans into me and deepens our kiss again, showing me, instead of telling me, how much he’s missed me too. I think for a moment that we’re going to progress beyond the kiss, that we’re only seconds away from ripping each other’s clothes away and making love right here on the dining room floor, but as I reach down for the top button on his shirt, he pulls away from my lips and gives me a disapproving look.

“All in good time, Ana,” He chides me. “I’ve made you dinner.”

“You cooked?” I ask, raising a disbelieving eyebrow at him.

He smiles and nods, and then loosens his grip around my legs so that I slide down his body. Once I’m firmly back on the ground, he pulls out a chair for me to sit and then disappears back into the kitchen. When he returns, he’s holding a pot in his hand, looking a little sheepish as he makes his way back to me.

“I’ve never cooked before….” He says, almost as if he’s warning me.

“Okay,” I nod, now looking down at the pot with trepidation. He nods and then reaches into the pot with a serving spoon and scoops some kind of gray, gloopy mush onto my plate. I’m slightly taken aback as I look down at it… I’m not even sure what it is.

“It’s mushroom risotto,” He explains, answering my unasked question. “Gail tried to teach me, she said it was easy…”

“Oh, right,” I reply, forcing a smile as I look up at him. “It looks… great.”

He lets out a short breath and then takes the seat next to me, dishing out his own helping and then waiting for me to start. I bite nervously down on my bottom lip as I scoop some of the mush onto my fork and take a bite. It somehow tastes raw and burnt at the same time, while still managing to taste like nothing at all. The consistency is bad, like glue, and I worry as I attempt to chew it, that I’m not going to be able to swallow. After a few failed attempts I am able to get it down though, and while I’m desperate to take a sip of wine to get this taste out of my mouth, I force myself to look up and smile at him.

“It’s good,” I tell him, but my voice is not very convincing. He gives me an unreadable look for a moment and then picks up his own fork to take a bite. The second the mush touches his tongue his face immediately goes blank, like he’s shocked by how bad it tastes. I watch him chew through the paste and when he too has to force himself to swallow, a fit of giggles bursts out of me.

“I definitely should have had something catered.” He says, reaching out for his own glass of wine.

“No, I love it,” I say, grateful that I’m finally able to take a drink now that he has.

“You don’t have to placate me, Anastasia…”

“I’m not. I mean, it’s not good and I’m not going to eat it, but I love that you made it for me. And, I love you.”

He smiles and passes me a bowl of salad, which thankfully is perfectly edible.

“You look like you feel better,” He notes as we fill our plates with the salad.

“Yeah, Kate really did work some magic. I’ve been on antibiotics for days but it turns out all I needed was a salt water flush and a disgusting mug of tea. So you’ll have her to thank for everything that happens later tonight.”

He laughs. “I’ll have Andrea send her a thank you card.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that. Kate does love to get credit for things,” I giggle. “How’s work going?”

His expression shifts and I notice some of the good humor in his eyes fades a little as he decides how to answer that. “It could be better. I’m experiencing a little more fallout from the trial than I had anticipated and Ros has been busy with the audit the judge ordered, trying to track the illegal revenue stream through the company. There have been a few red flags and it’s caused some discourse within the executive management team.”

“What does that mean?” I ask, but he shakes his head.

“I’m handling it,” He assures me, though it’s hard to be reassured when I can see the uncertainty just below the surface of the façade he’s trying to put on for me. I feel like I should move on, think of something to lighten the mood again, but his mention of the trial has brought up another question…

“How did court go this morning?” I ask him, and he frowns.

“It’s your birthday, Ana,” He says, shaking his head. “We don’t have to talk about Elena Lincoln.”

“No, I want to know,” I press him. “I didn’t get to see it go down like you did.”

He takes a deep breath and a drink of wine before he continues. “Fifteen years.” He says at last. “Parole after five.”

“What?” I gasp, my mouth actually opening in shock. “How…?”

“She took a plea deal,” He explains. “She plead guilty to the money laundering and seven counts of prostitution. The prosecution dropped the other fourteen…” He swallows. “And the underage sex trafficking.”

I’m dumbfounded. After everything that woman has done, she gets fifteen years. Fifteen? She’ll barely be more than retirement age at that time. Christian and I will only be in our thirties… Hell, parole could mean she’s out in only five.

“So, you’re saying that if she just doesn’t fuck up again, she goes free in five years?” I ask. He nods and it lights an angry, incredulous fire inside of me. “How the fuck is that even…”

My voice cuts off as I become angrier and angrier to the point where I can’t even speak.

“My dad told me it was the deal he would have gotten me,” Christian says.

“You didn’t do anything,” I say coldly.

“I know,” He agrees, and as I sit there, so infuriated that I’m physically shaking, he leans over and takes me into his arms. “She can’t contact us and when she is released, she’ll be under strict supervision. We’re done with her. She’s out of our lives. I don’t want to talk about her, or think about her anymore. I want to move on.”

I take a deep breath and nod. There isn’t anything I can do anyway and I suppose if she’s out of our lives, that’s all I can really ask for anyway.

He leans into me and kisses me again. I close my eyes and relax under his touch, letting all of the tension and reservation inside of me slip away as I lose myself in the contact between his lips and mine.

“We should clean up so that I can take you upstairs,” He says softly, but I reach up into his hair, tugging gently as I move out of my chair and climb onto his lap so that I’m kneeling over him.

“Fuck the dishes,” I say. He head tilts back as I lean down and kiss him and I feel his hands run up the back of my legs. It sends a warm shiver up my spine and suddenly, I’m aching for him. I’m on top of him, pressed into him, our tongues are dancing together, but still, I don’t feel close enough to him.

“I’ve been thinking about this all day,” I tell him. “I can’t wait anymore.”

“Then let’s go to bed,” He says.

He shifts me back onto the floor so that he can stand and then takes both of my hands to lead me, blindly, towards the stairs. I take the steps first and it puts me even with him in height so I take advantage to kiss him again. Suddenly, I’m pushed back into the wall, his left hand pulling against my hips so that I’m pressed flush against him, while his right hand reaches to the back of my neck to hold me in the kiss. I moan into his mouth, parting my lips further as his tongue finds mine.

For a moment, it feels like we might never make it to the bed, that he’s just going to rip into me right here on the stairs, but when my teeth scrape against his bottom lip, he lets out a low, feral growl and pulls away.

“Get upstairs,” He pants, and I scramble forward to obey his command. A high yelp and then giggle bubbles out of my lips as I take the next two steps and then feel him slap my ass. The sound he makes in response resonates inside of me, sending tremors of desire through my entire body, and by the time I make it to my bedroom, it feels as though my skin is singing with my need for him.

“I love you, Christian,” I tell him, stepping forward to kiss him again as my fingers begin tugging at the buttons on his shirt until I can pull it away from him and let it pool carelessly on the floor. In the next second, he’s stripped me down to my bra and lifted me from the ground so that I can wrap my legs around his waist and we’re pressed together, skin to skin, while he takes me back to the bed. Once he’s laid me out over the comforter, his lips part from mine and he moves down to unfasten the buttons on my jeans.

“You’re so beautiful, baby,” He whispers as he slowly eases them down my legs. His lips make contact with me over and over again, exploring each new inch of skin he exposes. “God, I love your body.”

Once I’m naked from the waist down, he moves up my body, his tongue tracing the lines of my hips to my stomach and then up to my cleavage, which is still deep and defined under the constraints of my bra.

“Mmm,” He hums, pushing my breasts together more as he buries his face between them. “So fucking sexy.”

I look down as his lips create suction against the swell of my breast and feel the heat between my legs intensify as I see the bright, liquid steel in his eyes, burning with his desire. My hearts begins to pound in my chest as our eyes meet and for a moment, I’m so lost in him, I have to remind myself to breathe.

“Christian, kiss me,” I beg, twisting my fingers in his hair as I attempt to pull him up to me. He moves up to my lips without a fight, lifting his hips off of me for a moment so that I can work the buttons and zipper on his pants and begin to ease them down his hips. I shift down a little, moving my lips to his neck while we work together to completely remove his pants and boxers, and as I suck gently on the sensitive spot just below his ear, I feel him shudder. The unconscious movement brings goosebumps to my skin as I bask in the thought of his pleasure, that it’s me and my body that makes him feel this way.

“I’m ready, Christian.” I tell him, “Please…”

“Not yet,” He says. “I want to make you come with my mouth.”

I whimper as he shifts, moving down my body again until his lips make contact with my center. A long moan pours from my lips and I tilt my pelvis up to his mouth, silently, but greedily, begging for more. He complies, slipping his tongue into me while his lips move around my clitoris. Soon, my legs begin to tremble and my breath comes out in hitched and broken gasps. I tighten my legs around his head, fighting against the urge to pull away as the pleasure begins to overwhelm me. His hands reach under my ass, gripping tightly to me as he pushes deeper into me, doubling his efforts with his tongue and his lips, and soon the tightly coiled pressure growing in my belly explodes, flooding my veins with intense, fiery euphoria.

“Holy fuck, Christian!” I scream, attempting to thrash away from him, but his strong hands hold me in place, forcing me to lie there while my orgasm rattles me to my core.

When I come down, I lie there, panting, unable to speak, while Christian leaves soft kisses against me. “I’ll never get tired of watching you come for me, Ana,” He whispers, sending intense aftershocks up my legs as his lips brush softly against my clitoris. “I love that I can do this to you.”

“Only you,” I tell him. He finally releases me and I reach down to tug on his arms, trying to pull him up on top of me again. He shifts onto his knees and moves so that he’s level with me, the muscles in his arms showing in an unbelievably captivating way as he holds himself up over me.

“I love you, Christian,” I whisper.

“I love you, too,” He leans down and kisses me again, easing himself down on top of me so that I can feel his weight. Soon, I can feel a desperate kind of tightness in his lips, in the way he’s holding me, and in the way he’s grinding his erection into me.

“I need to feel you,” He says, reaching behind me to unhook my bra and then tossing it across the room. His hand slides up my body to grip my breast so that my nipples are peaking through his index and middle fingers. I feel his erection brush against me again as his fingers close around my nipple and I have to bite down on my lip to hold back my cries.

“I want you, Christian. Please.”

He moans and then reaches down between my legs, gripping firmly to his erection while he swirls the head around my clitoris, teasing me as he lubricates himself.

“Do you know what you do to me?” He asks.

“No.” I reply, incoherently.

“You make me come alive, Anastasia,” He tells me. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I moan and then, with one fluid motion, he’s inside of me. I throw my head backwards, my mouth falling open as I revel in the connection between us. It’s more than the satisfaction of our hunger and lust for one another. More than the pleasure. It encompasses everything I want to share with Christian. It’s trust and our commitment to each other. It’s vulnerability, a promise, the thing that makes me his, and what makes him mine. It’s the greatest expression of our love and it’s almost a tragedy that, eventually, it will come to an end, no matter how pleasurable that end may be.

“Hold me tighter, Christian,” I beg, and his arms wrap around me as he thrusts forward, eliciting a cry from deep inside of me. Our mouths come together again, and the kiss somehow works in synchronization with his movements inside of me. I push against him, taking everything from him I can and reaping the benefits ten times over.

Soon, I’m building again. Climbing higher and higher, soaring, my back rising off the bed as I chase the orgasm just out of the reach of my fingertips. His hands grip tightly to me, pulling me into him as his thrusts become more purposeful. He directs all of his focus into the one place inside of me that brings every nerve ending in my body to life, and while I devolve into a panting, gasping mess, screaming his name over and over again, I surrender myself to the pleasure, leaving myself entirely at his mercy, until I explode.

“Oh Jesus, Ana!” He cries, his face screwing up tighter as my vaginal walls clamp down around him. “Fuck, baby. Christ, you feel good,” His mouth opens and his breathing harshens and just as he reaches the precipice of his climax, I dig my fingernails into him, dragging them down his back, and he tumbles over the edge with me, confessing his love once more as he pours his release into me.

We lie there for a moment, pressing against each other while our breathing slowly returns to normal. Every muscle in my body feels relaxed, comfortable, even though his weight is still pressing me into the mattress.

“Happy birthday, Ana,” He whispers.

“Thank you,” I reply, turning my head so that I can look at him again. As we lay there, neither of us willing to move, we stare into each other’s eyes and, again, I’m nearly overwhelmed by the love I see reflected there. I wonder if he can see that in the way I look at him? If he can look into my eyes and know that he is what makes me whole.

“What are you thinking about?” He asks, brushing the tendrils of hair on my forehead away from my face.

“You,” I reply. “How much I love you. How much you mean to me. How happy I am that you’re here and that I can hold you again.”

“Me too,” He says. “I’ve missed you so much, Anastasia. You’re my best friend and I hate it when you’re away from me. It feels like part of me is missing.”

“Kiss me,” I whisper, and he leans down to press his lips to mine. There’s so much that words could never say in this kiss, an enormity that no language on earth could define. We’ve made love together countless times, in nearly every way I can imagine, and yet, something about tonight feels momentous. Maybe that we’ve finally crossed over the threshold of the pain and darkness in the past and are finally moving forward together into the light. I can’t be sure. The only thing I can be sure of is the complete devotion I feel for the the man wrapped around me and the utter certainty that he is the one person on this planet who I’m meant to be with.

“Make love to me, again,” I mutter against his lips. “I don’t want you to stop.”

“I never want to stop,” He assures me, and while his tongue claims mine and his hands take possession of my body, he eases himself inside of me, and once again, I’m home.

Next Chapter

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