Chapter 18

pont des art

There’s almost something magical about walking hand in hand with Christian through the streets of Paris in the early morning. It’s Christmas Eve and people rush past us in the same flurries as the flakes of snow that have been falling since early this morning. We’ve been here for two days now, and spending all day yesterday making our way from one famous landmark to the next has taken it’s toll. I’m tired and sore and I’d love nothing more than to be in bed with a warm cup of tea and a great book, but I choose to ignore my discomfort and the heavy droop in my eyelids because today is the first day I’ve had Christian all to myself. Today, I don’t have to worry about balancing my attention between my mother and Christian’s family, or Gia’s lingering gazes at my boyfriend, or even the exhaustion and pain I’d witnessed Carrick trying to hide all day yesterday. We don’t even have Luke or Taylor shadowing our every move. Today, nothing exists but me and Christian, and the most romantic city in the world.

We stop first at a small cafe where we can sit by the window and watch the last minute Christmas shoppers rushing past, overloaded by colorful packages. Christian brings tea and an assortment of the most decadent looking pastries from the counter for us to enjoy while he pulls me close into his side and we try to make up stories to go with the distressed looks on people’s faces as they pass the window.

“Oh, this guy,” I start, pointing to a man across the street who is looking down at his phone and then up at the names on the storefronts  with confusion. “His wife told him to buy their son’s gift weeks ago but he just kept putting it off. Now it’s Christmas Eve and he’s been to six different toy stores and can’t find the newest, greatest action figure that his son has begged for since October. If he can’t find it, not only will his son be devastated, but he’ll probably hate him forever and stop believing in Santa Claus.”

“That’s horrible,” Christian admonishes me.

“Mmm, but the real lesson in the end is that it was never about the toy. His son is going to wake up happy on Christmas morning anyway because all he really wanted was to share Christmas with his father, who he loves and looks up to more than anyone else in the world.”

He wraps his arm around me and pulls me into him, leaning down to kiss my hair. “That sounds like one of those Christmas movies you’d see on the Hallmark channel.”

“Almost,” I agree. “It’s loosely based off of Jingle all the Way, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

“Anastasia! You plagiarized Christmas? I’m shocked.”

I giggle and then tilt my head up to kiss him softly on the lips before nodding out the window at a young woman wearing a red knit hat, looking almost forlorn as she slowly meanders up the street.

“What about her?”

“Well, she holds Christmas very close to her heart. Her family is very important to her and Christmas is one of the few times a year they can be together. They don’t have a lot of money, but, on Christmas, that’s never mattered because they’ve always had each other. Unfortunately, this year, her miserly boss hasn’t granted her a Christmas bonus or even a day off to spend with her family. Profit, he tells her, is more important than silly holidays.”

“A Christmas Carol?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him. “You’re really going to try and rip off Dickens to me?”

“No, it’s actually true. I know her. She works for GEH. I’m the miser.”

I laugh. “Well then, Mr. Scrooge. I may not be the ghost of Christmas past, or the ghost of Christmas yet to come, but let’s see if I can give you a change of heart.” I reach up to pull his face down to mine and he moans slightly as my tongue pushes past his lips. His arms tighten around me as I move closer into him, as close to him as I can possibly be. I feel my body melting against him as his tongue massages mine with long, careful strokes. His lips are soft and gentle against mine, but there’s still electricity between us. A pull as strong as gravity that draws me to him and, mercifully, won’t let go.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he whispers before placing another quick, soft kiss upon my lips.

“And I love you.”

He hums a low, pleasure filled sound at those words and kisses me deeply again, moving his hands through my hair as he pours his love into me. When he pulls away though, he glances briefly over his shoulder, smirks, and then nods to the door.

“Let’s get out of here. I think we’ve put on enough of a show for the good patrons of Café Verlet.”

“Making out in a booth at a public cafe? That’s very brazen of you, Mr. Grey.”

“It’s very French of us, Miss Steele.” I smile at him and take the hand he offers me as we climb out of the leather padded seats and make our way back to the bustling Rue de Richelieu. Christian asks if we should take a cab, but I’m too enamoured by the activity and the life of the city to observe it through a car window, even if it does mean a long walk. Still, it’s a little cold, so Christian takes my hand in his and tucks them both into the pocket of his wool coat to keep our conjoined fingers warm.

I’m not sure where we’re going, but I think it’s possible we may never get there because we stop so many times. I’ve never been in a city quite like this, surrounded by street performers, artists, and musicians, all braving the cold and the snow to share their gifts with the tourists. There are contortionists, and violin players, we even pass two guys rapping very quickly in French, and even though I can’t understand what they’re saying, I’m fascinated. It’s easy to find a connection to the culture in the language.

A few blocks up the road, we walk through a square where a crowd of people are gathered around a group of men playing several different instruments, swaying back and forth while the man in the front sings the final bars of Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me. His deep baritone is rich and decadent, and his presence is so commanding that we can’t help but stop to listen. As he croons out the last note over the final beats from the band behind him, the crowd around us bursts into applause, and Christian and I are quick to join.

“Merci,” the singer says, taking a bow. “Thank you. Merci.” Several people step forward to place money in the open trumpet case on the ground next to them and while the singer nods in gratitude and scans the crowd, his eyes stop on me.

Zut alors!” He exclaims, his french accent more pronounced in his regular speech than his singing voice, where I hadn’t noticed it at all. “Pardon me, ladies and gentleman, but I have just laid eyes on the world’s most beautiful woman and she has taken the very breath out of me.”

I blush as I feel a few pairs of eyes turn back towards me, and the heat in my cheeks only increases as the singer continues to speak.

“Where do you come from, mademoiselle?”

“We’re here from the United States,” I reply, stepping in closer to Christian and wrapping my arm around him.

“Ah, and a beautiful man as well. There is only one thing that would bring such a couple to the streets of Paris on Christmas Eve.” He pauses, and his eyes glitter. “Love. I can see it. A woman never is more beautiful than when she is glowing with love and this young lady glows brighter than the stars.”

I turn my head to look up at Christian, beaming, and the radiant smile he gives back to me almost makes me weak at the knees.

“This next song is for you, the lovers,” the singer says, and he turns back to his band. Soon the bass player begins plucking at the strings in rhythm with the guy behind the keyboard and as the snare drum kicks in, the singer turns around.

“L, is for the way you look, at me. O, is for the only one, I see. V, is very, very, extraordinary, E, is even more than anyone that you adore. And love, is all that I can give to you. Love Is more than just a game for two. Two in love can make it, take my heart and please don’t break it. Love, was made for me and you.”  

The trumpet player starts and Christian surprises me by pulling our hands from his coat and spinning me around. With a gentle tug, he pulls me against him and we begin to sway back and forth in time with the music. It’s a very strange thing. Part of me thinks I should be embarrassed dancing here in the middle of a crowded square, being gawked at by not only the crowd surrounding the band but also the onlookers from the street, but I’m not. They don’t exist. Here, in one of the most crowded cities in the world, I’m in my own little bubble with Christian, staring into the depths of his gray eyes and seeing nothing but the unrelenting love staring back at me. I hardly even register when the trumpet stops and the words begin again, but as the singer belts out the very last, Love was made for me and you, Christian dips me backwards and a joyous laugh bubbles through my lips. He eases me back up slowly, kissing me the moment his lips are able touch mine, and when the music dies out, once again, we’re surrounded with the sound of applause.

Christian kisses me once and then walks through the crowd to put some money in the trumpet case. I blush again at the smiles of the people who make their way past me as they continue on with their day, then cling to Christian as he returns to me and sweeps me further into the square.

“Did you plan that?” I ask, noting the band seems to be packing up now that we’re leaving.

“No,” he shakes his head. “But it would be really fucking smooth if I did.” I laugh and then lean into his side as we continue on down the road.

It takes a while, but eventually we make it to the banks of the Seine river and I smile broadly as Christian turns me towards the glass pyramid that stands before the Louvre. I know that art has always been one of Christian’s greatest loves, anyone could see that by the almost gallery like quality our living room at Escala has taken on, and the history behind the thousands of artifacts gathered here is something I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. It’s the perfect way for us to spend an afternoon together. A flawless marriage of our sometimes very different interests.

The museum is astoundingly huge, so we start with just the paintings and drawings. I’ve seen pictures of the most famous of these artworks a hundred times before, the Mona Lisa, the Wedding at Cana, Liberty Leading the people, but seeing them in person and hearing Christian talk about them makes them feel brand new. I’ve never been talented at painting, or sculpting, or any kind of art really, so I’d never paid much attention to it as a subject before. After we leave the paintings and make our way to the next exhibit though, I think Christian may have converted me.

I’m most excited about the Greek and Roman artifacts and reading the long detailed placards that tell me everything there is to know about each of the impeccable statues and pottery pieces laid out over the display tables. I spend a long time at the Sarcophagus of the Muses, reading through the provided information three different times between staring at the carvings in the stone. It’s not the most impressive of the sculptures around us, and the women depicted are not the most beautiful, but there’s something about the symbolism of this piece, about how the literature, art, and philosophy inspired by the muses ensures immortality and the salvation of the soul, that really resonates with me. I spend a long time studying it, learning the names, faces, and purpose of each of the women carved perfectly into the sides of the sarcophagus. I probably could have stayed longer, but we’re on a schedule and Christian assures me that the Egyptian exhibits can’t be missed.

We stay at the Louvre late into the afternoon, and even though we must have walked miles through the different exhibits, I feel less tired leaving the museum than I have this entire trip.

“Where to now?” I ask Christian as we walk through the front doors and out into the lazily drifting snowflakes.

“The hotel,” he says. “I’ve promised my mother we will join them for Christmas Mass.”

“Oh,” I reply, feeling slightly taken aback.

“But, if that makes you uncomfortable, I can tell them no,” he says, misreading my cues.

“No, not at all. I just… I didn’t realize that you would be interested in attending something like that. I’ve never seen you go to church before and you’ve never talked about your beliefs or anything so I just assumed you weren’t religious…”

“I’m not,” he says. “I mean, I went to church with my family when I was very young and I’m a confirmed Catholic, technically, but I turned away from all of that a very long time ago. My mother, on the other hand, is devout and it means a lot to her to have her family with her at Christmas Mass. I haven’t been since… well, since our Freshman year.”

“Oh. Well, we should go then.”

“It won’t be completely terrible, I promise. We’re going to Notre Dame and the Christmas service is actually supposed to be really special.”

“Notre Dame?” I repeat, my excitement peaking.

“Yes. I’m willing to take bets that, at least once, Elliot is going to wander into one of the balconies and proclaim sanctuary. That or he’ll be singing Hellfire under his breath while he feels his girlfriend up in the pews.”

“How many Hail Mary’s do you think it would take to make up for interrupting a church service for a Disney reenactment anyway?” I ask, but he simply rolls his eyes, chuckles to himself, and then leans down to kiss me once more before leading me to the closest cab.

We have a little time once we get back to the hotel, so we decide to take a shower and commit a few of our own sins before we go and absolve ourselves at church. When it’s time to get ready though, I find myself combing through the clothes Christian pre-bought for this trip with absolutely no idea what I’m going to wear. I think most of this is either too much or too revealing for a religious service, but Christian is dressed in a three piece suit, so I can’t exactly pull jeans and a sweater out of my suitcase.

I decide to combine a few of the outfits and end up in a knee length, light gray bell skirt and a structured white top with a swooping neckline and ¾ sleeves.  I pair it with simple black pumps, then head into the bathroom to redo my hair and makeup for the second time today. When I’m finished, I slip into the red wool trench from my closet, pin the fastener with the overly large snowflake embellishment that I snagged from a couture store yesterday afternoon into my hair, and then cling to Christian’s arm as we make our way down to join is family.

“You look beautiful, dear,” Grace says, holding her arms open for me as we descend the stairs into the lobby, but between my headpiece and her giant hat, it’s difficult for us to hug each other. My mom, who had sworn off all religion when she left home at eighteen because of some traumatic childhood experiences, has decided not to join us tonight, so we leave the hotel with just Christian’s family. As we walk through the front doors though, it becomes apparent that our time walking through Paris yesterday has taken it’s toll on Carrick. He looks much paler and weaker today than he has this entire trip. It’s obvious enough that Christian releases my hand and falls in line right behind him with Elliot, as though they’re afraid he’s going to collapse. They have to help him get into the first town car waiting for us against the curb outside, and I frown once I realize there isn’t enough room for all of us and we’re going to be travelling to Notre Dame with Elliot and Gia alone.

“So,” Gia says, distracting me by hooking her arm through mine as we make our way to the second car. “How was your day? tell me everything.”

“Anastasia,” Christian says, interrupting Gia by opening the door for me and directing me to take a seat on the far side. I’m grateful when I see there are two different sets of seats inside, facing each other like you would find in a limo, so there will be some distance between us and his brother for the duration of the drive. Unfortunately, the separation doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with her constant chatter.

“Ana,” Gia prods me again once we’re shut inside the car and we start moving, and I hesitate for a moment as it takes me a second to remember her question.

“Oh, it was great. We had a romantic breakfast, explored the city a little, and went to the Louvre. It was really special.”

“Christian!” She exclaims with an impressed kind of shock. “I didn’t know you were such a romantic. Do you know that your brother took me on a pub crawl this afternoon?”

“I thought it would be fun,” Elliot says defensively. “Until I remembered she doesn’t eat carbs and beer is basically liquid bread…”

“Mhm,” She says, admonishing him, but then smiles. “He made it up to me though.” She holds her wrist out and shows us a sparkling diamond tennis bracelet.

“That’s really beautiful,” I compliment her and she lights up.

“I know, right? I’ve been dying to go to Cartier since we got here but I thought I was going to have to con you and Mia into a girl’s trip. Then Elliot just surprised me with a spur of the moment shopping spree. Isn’t he the best?”

“The best,” I agree.

“So how was the Louvre, Christian?” She continues without missing a beat. “What was your favorite part?”

“Spending the afternoon with Ana,” he replies, and her face melts as though she’s looking at a basket of puppies.

“Awh, that’s so sweet. Elliot, isn’t that the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard?”

“Yeah, he’s so precious,” Elliot replies. He leans forward and tries to pinch Christian’s cheeks but Christian gives him a hard glare that tells him that would be a mistake. I wait to see if Elliot is going to test him, push him in only the way a big brother can, but he doesn’t. He taps him lightly on the cheek two times and then leans back into his seat, pulling on Gia’s legs so that they cover his lap and leaning over to whisper in her ear.

Christian rolls his eyes and uses the lapse in conversation to pull out his phone and catch up on the emails he’s missed throughout the day, and as I watch him replying to something from Ros, I realize I haven’t looked at my phone once since I got here. I reach over for my bag, finding it extremely low on battery but thankfully not dead, and open the text messages I have from Kate.

 


So where are you going?


Anaaaaaaaa!


Well, MIA texted me, because apparently she loves me more than my best friend. Paris?! Is it amazing?


I miss you 😦


I stare at her last message and it feels like a knife in my heart. She’s stuck back at home with Ainsley and Eliza, probably thinking I’ve forgotten all about her as I galavant through the streets of Paris bonding with Gia, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I miss her too, so much, especially hearing Gia’s giggling across the car with me, so I quickly send her a text back.


I miss you too.


I stare at the phone, waiting for her response, but it doesn’t come before we pull up in front of the cathedral. Christian helps me out of the back of the car and as I look around at the front entrance of the famous building, I’m surprised by the number of people milling in and out.

“There’s so many people,” I whisper to Christian.

“It’s the most famous cathedral in the world,” he replies. “Do you know how hard it was to get reservations for Christmas Eve mass?”

“You had to get reservations?”

“Yes, and if anyone asks, you’re a confirmed Catholic.”

I put my finger to my lips to show I can keep the secret, and then grip tightly to his fingers as we’re directed inside. The interior of the cathedral is incredibly beautiful. There’s a long aisle down the middle with blue and gold tiles paving the way to an actual golden altar, which stands three stories high. The last of the Parisian sunlight shines in through intricate stained glass windows over the pews, which are made of rich, cherry colored wood and are filled to the brim with people.

Avez-vous une réservation?” A man asks as we step into the aisle.

Oui, pour sept personnes. Sous le nom Grey,” Christian replies. The man checks his list, using his pen to check each of the names, and then stops when he gets to our reservation.

Grey, oui. S’il vous plaît, monsieur, suivez-moi.” He turns around and leads us halfway down the aisle where we are seated on the end of a long pew and left to wait for the service to begin. It doesn’t take long as I think we got here a little late, but when it does begin, there is a lot of fanfare around it. An organ begins to play and the doors at the back of the cathedral open for several men in ornate robes, who walk slowly up the aisle. As they move, everyone around us rises to their feet and a hush falls over the overcrowded room. They fall in line into chairs at the front except for one man, who is dressed in purple and wears a small red hat on top of his head. We continue to stand while several young boys caring poles with a candle on the end light the candles on the altar. Then the organ stops, the man in purple at the podium speaks, and everyone sits once again.

The service itself is hard to follow because it’s entirely in Latin. I’m mostly able to simply enjoy the amazing choir and the hymns and Christmas music they sing, and that in itself is a wonderful experience. Christian sits silently next to me for the entire service, his hand clasped gently around mine. He doesn’t bow his head in prayer when everyone else does nor does he doesn’t sing with any of the hymns,  but he rises when the others do and he holds the bible open in his hand. I think for a moment that his reticence is because he doesn’t understand Latin any better than I do, but that proves to be wrong when the crowd responds in unison to something the priest has said and he joins them without hesitation. In the end, this entire experience shows me a different side of him I’ve never seen before, and it’s strange but also heartwarming.

The service ends with a single woman rising from her seat in the choir and moving to the center. The organ plays behind her and she begins to sing O Holy Night.

Her voice is clear and strong, even when she begins softly. There’s a delicate vibrato behind every note that draws me in and has me captivated by her. She too sings in Latin, so I can’t understand her words, but the passion she sings with creates a connection that makes me believe that I can understand her.

As she transitions into the second verse, the choir behind her joins in and the song is transformed from something beautiful, to something ethereal. I don’t know whether it’s the shine in the gold behind her or flicker from the thousands of candles around the cathedral, but she seems to glow. As she hits the final high note, throwing everything she has into this one grand moment, I feel tear break over my water line and roll slowly down my cheek. I can’t bring myself to wipe it away until her song is finished and the entire cathedral bursts into applause.

“That was incredible,” I whisper to Christian and he smiles down at me.

“She’s amazing.” He lifts my hand to his lips and, after the priests have exited, he rises from the pew and helps me to my feet before leading me back into the aisle. I expect him direct me towards the exit, following the crowd generally flowing in that direction, but he doesn’t. He waits for the rest of his family to make their way from the pew and then we all head down the aisle towards the altar. There’s a small line there of people kneeling on the steps in prayer before a table covered in candles in glass jars, and we fall in behind them. When we get to the front of the line, Grace takes the few steps and then reaches out for one of the wooden sticks next to the table, holds it in a flame til it catches fire, and then places it over the wick of one of the unlit candles on the table before her. Once the flame catches, she kneels down on the stair and folds her hands in prayer.

“What is she doing?” I whisper to Christian.

“It’s for my Dad. She’s praying for a donor.” I nod once, and then turn back to her, seeing her in a new light. Grace is a doctor, a woman of science, but here she is, praying for a miracle. For the life of her husband. It’s moving, but also slightly devastating.

When she gets to her feet, Elliot, Mia, and Christian all step forward and each take on of the sticks in their hands to light their own candles. Mia kneels down to pray, the same as her mother, but Christian and Elliot simply walk back down the steps to stand next to Gia and I. Once Mia stands, Christian takes my hand and tugs, trying to pull me back up the aisle, but I stop him. My gaze is frozen on the candles flickering on the table before us, on the angels looking down at us. I take a deep breath and step forward, taking a stick of my own and placing it in the flame before lighting the candle next to the once Christian lit himself. As the wick begins to burn, I stare at the resulting flame. I don’t feel comfortable kneeling prayer, but if any of this could possibly be real, and standing here after that amazing service, it feels like it could be, I want to do my part for Carrick.

“Thank you, dear,” Grace says as I walk back down the steps. She wraps an arm around me, squeezing me tightly, and then places a soft kiss in my hair. She doesn’t release me, not even to Christian, until we are out of the cathedral.

“Well, shall we find a place to go to dinner?” Carrick asks, and while everyone starts to pull out their phones to do exactly that, Christian shakes his head.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to steal Ana away again. I have a private dinner planned just for the two us.”

“Okay,” Grace sighs. She steps forward to hug both of us, but stops Christian when he moves to turn away. “We will see you in the morning though, won’t we?”

“I expect everyone will meet in my suite bright and early to unwrap gifts.”

“Good,” she nods. “Have a good evening, son.”

“You too.” He kisses her cheek once more and then turns to clasp my hand, and I wave over my shoulder at his family as we wander off into the night.

“So, where are we going for dinner?” I ask once we’re out of view of the others.

He shrugs. “I actually haven’t made plans, I just wanted to have you alone again. But, we can find a place along the way. I thought we could take a walk up the Champs-Élysées. All the trees have been covered in Christmas lights and it’s supposed to be breathtaking. We’ll end at the Arc De Triomphe, and you didn’t get to see that the other night with the others. It really is something.”

“Sounds perfect.”

He pulls me under his arm to shield me from the cold breeze and we make our way up the avenue, engaging each other in deep, real conversation, the way we haven’t been able to since we’ve been living so far apart. The snow drifts around us, and over the sounds of the river flowing beneath the bridge we have to cross to the to the Champs-Élysées, I can hear the faint sound of carolers in the distance and metal clinking against metal.

“Wait a minute,” I tell him, stopping as I get a good look at the bridge around us. “Is this the Pont des Arts?”

“The what?” Christian asks.

“The love lock bridge. Look, there’s padlocks on the railing. You’re supposed to write your name and your true love’s name on one and then you lock it to the bridge and throw away the key. It means that your love will last forever.”

“Does it?”

“Mhm. Oh, I wish we had lock,” I say dejectedly, but when I look up at him, he’s smiling down at me.

“You mean like this?” He reaches into his inner jacket pocket and pulls out a golden padlock with a silver key stuck in the bottom. I light up as he hands it to me, along with a sharpie, and leads me to the side of the bridge. I rest it on top of the railing and, as neatly as possible, I write:

Christian ❤ Anastasia

“Do you want to do the honors?” I ask, holding the lock up for him.

“You mean the vandalism?” He smirks, but reaches down for lock, checks briefly over both shoulders for anyone who may be watching, and then quickly secures it around the chain link below the railing. He yanks the key out of the bottom and hands it to me and I gently place a kiss on the cool metal before tossing it over side into the black water below.

I lean onto the railing and stare at the view off the bridge, the lights glittering in the distance, the people laughing and talking as they walk along the sidewalks on either side of the river, all muted through the thin veil of snowflakes swirling around us.

“This has been the most perfect day,” I tell Christian as I feel him press up against me from behind and wrap his arms around me.

“It really has,” he agrees. “Are you cold?”

“A little.”

“Here.” He shrugs out of his coat and wraps it around me, and as I move so that I can slide my arms into the warm sleeves, I feel something strange inside of me.

“Oh!” I gasp, my hands flying down to my stomach.

“What?” Christian asks, the concern immediately apparent. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I…” But my voice cuts off again as I feel the unfamiliar fluttering sensation again. It’s like an involuntary muscle spasm or a twitch, but inside my stomach, and as I feel the tingling sensation, like a gentle tumbling or rolling feeling, I realize…

“I can feel her moving!” I exclaim, turning to face Christian. His eyes widen.

“You can?” He asks. I nod and his hands reach down underneath all my layers. I cringe slightly when his cold hands make contact with the skin on my stomach, but I’m too elated from finally feeling some movement from the baby I’ve been carrying inside of me for almost four months now to care too much.

I laugh as I feel the fluttering once more, like it’s trying to prove to me that it’s real, but Christian frowns.

“I don’t feel anything,” he says. I bite down on my lip, feeling a twinge of regret that he’s missing out on this remarkable moment.

“Here,” I say, adjusting his hands so they’re right over where I can feel the movement. He waits a few more seconds but, eventually, he shakes his head.

“I don’t feel anything,” he repeats.

“It’s faint, not like a kick or anything. It feels like… I don’t know, popcorn? Maybe it’s too early for you to feel it too.”

“Yeah,” he nods, and although, at first, there’s a small flash of sadness in his eyes, it’s quickly replaced by excitement. “But you can feel it? She’s moving and you can feel it?”

“I can feel her,” I tell him again. “I can feel our baby moving, Christian.”

“Oh, Ana.” He leans down and kisses me, his hands shooting up to cradle each side of my face as his lips part mine and our tongues entwine. His kiss is passionate, consuming, and as I let his love wash over me, the fluttering in my stomach starts again and tears begin to well in my eyes.

“What’s wrong?” He asks.

“Nothing is wrong,” I say, my voice thick as I try to keep myself from crying. “Absolutely nothing is wrong. Christian, I am so happy right now. I love you so much.”

“I love you too,” He whispers, and he leans down to kiss me again. When he pulls away, he stares at me adoringly for a moment and then, out of nowhere, his express changes. There’s conflict in his eyes, like he’s warring with a decision he doesn’t want to make.

“Wha-” I begin, but he cuts me off.

“I had a plan,” he says, speaking aloud, but not really as though he’s speaking to me.

“A plan? What do you mean?”

“I had a plan,” he repeats. “I… Ray is going to call you tomorrow and I was going to ask to speak to him. After Christmas dinner, I was going to take you the Palace of Versailles. I’ve reserved every room, even the opera house, so that we would have it to ourselves. There’s a string quartet and they were going to play a version of the song that was playing when you said yes to me at the Paris in Vegas. The Paris… that’s why we’re here. There are 10,000 flowers being delivered… and candles. So many fucking candles. You wouldn’t believe what goes into ordering candles. Different shapes and sizes. Color. Scented, unscented. Who’s going to light them? How will the be arranged? What about fires? It’s ridiculous, but I planned it. It’s ready… for tomorrow.”

“What are you talking about?” I ask, looking up at him as though he’s gone crazy.

“I can’t wait until tomorrow,” he says. “I can’t wait another second.”

He reaches into his suit jacket and pulls out a small black box with the words Harry Winston engraved on the top in delicate silver leafing. The same box I saw in his desk drawer a month ago.

“Oh my god,” I whisper, and he takes my hand and then, slowly, lowers himself down onto one knee.

“Anastasia Rose Steele,” He begins. “I love you, more than I ever knew a man could be capable of loving a woman. You are my everything. You are my beginning, and I want you to be there at my end. I want you by my side from now until forever. I want you to share every moment of my life with me. You’re already my soulmate, but would you do me the extraordinary honor of also becoming my wife?”

He opens the box and inside is the most exquisite diamond ring I’ve ever seen. It’s a solitaire, square, and immaculate, floating over a thin band, which is paved in diamonds itself. It’s breathtaking and as I look between the ring and the love I see reflecting up at me behind his eyes, I lose my breath. I can’t speak. I can’t move. Tears continue to pour from my eyes until eventually, I nod.

“Yes,” I reply, my voice hoarse as I force it through my lips. “Yes, of course I will marry you. I love you, Christian Grey.”

His returning smile is triumphant, but I only get to see it for a second before he leaps back to his feet and brings his lips crashing down on mine. It’s hard to kiss him back because I can’t control the smile on my face.

He breaks away from the kiss and then lifts me into the air, spinning me around, looking as though he’s won the superbowl or something. When he sets me down, he takes my left hand in his and slips the outrageous ring onto my finger. I hold it up in front of me, admiring the way it seems to catch even the muted light shining all around us. It really is the most beautiful ring I’ve ever laid eyes on.

His hand entwines with mine as we make our way across the bridge and up to the Champs-Élysées, his fingers playing with the ring around my finger the entire way.

“It fits perfectly. How did you know my ring size?” I ask him.

“Kate,” he says. “She snuck into your jewelry box months ago, last summer while I was in New York, and brought it with her when I took her to the jewelry designer to get her opinion on the ring a few days later. She’s better at keeping secrets than you think she is.”

“Apparently, “ I laugh. “I can’t imagine how much it’s been killing her to keep this secret for months.”

He pulls me back into him, holding me just to feel me against him, and as we walk together up the glittering road lined with Parisian shops, restaurants, and cafes, I think to myself that this might be the best night that anyone has ever had. It’s a long walk, but I’ve never been more content, and when we finally make it to the Arc de Triomphe, Christian leans over, presses his lips into my hair, and whispers, “Ever mine, Ever thine…”

“Ever ours.” I finish for him, and then turn to take his lips with mine once more.

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