“Almost there, baby?” I moan, looking down at him and seeing the muscles in his face getting tighter each time I rise up and fall down onto him again. I’ve been riding him hard for nearly ten minutes and, even though my thighs are burning from the extra effort it takes to keep up this pace thanks to my pregnancy, after a night like tonight, all I want is to give him the most pleasure he can possibly experience.
“So fucking close,” he groans. His hands tighten on my hips and he thrusts up into me harder, making me clench tightly around him. I’ve been holding back, trying to stay my own orgasm until he can come with me, but his increasing fervor has me too far gone. The quiver inside of me intensifies until my entire body is shuddering with pleasure and I’m screaming out his name. A garbled mixture of some expletive and a gasp escapes his lips and he pulls my hips down onto him, holding me in place while he tilts his pelvis up as far into me as he can and finds his own release. I gyrate my hips back and forth until he comes down, making him shake as the aftershocks of pleasure wash through him. When it all becomes too much, he reaches up for my arms and pulls me down so that my naked chest is pressed against his and his mouth can ravage mine.
“That was so fucking incredible,” he whispers. “You have to be the sexiest thing that’s ever walked this earth.”
“Mmm,” I hum. “We aim to please.”
“And please you do. I never thought that anything could ever be more beautiful around my cock than your mouth, but your hand with this ring…”
“It really is gorgeous,” I say, rolling off of him so I can raise my hand into the air over our heads and we can both admire the ring again. “It just… it doesn’t feel real yet. I mean, you’re not my boyfriend anymore, you’re my fiancé!”
“And that is the second most satisfying thing you’ll ever call me.”
“Master?” I check, but he shakes his head.
“Husband.” I smile over at him and then lean up on my elbows to press my lips into his again. He kisses me softly, his lips playing gently against mine and his tongue moving languidly. It’s the kind of kiss I want to go on forever, but eventually, he pulls away, brushes my hair from my face, and sighs.
“It’s almost six.”
“And you’re ready for nap part deux?” I ask, because we haven’t actually slept more than two continuous hours since we got back to the hotel last night, but he shakes his head.
“As much as I’m impressed that a week in Paris seems to have improved your French, it’s Christmas morning and everyone is going to be up here soon to open gifts. We should get dressed before…”
But I don’t have to wait to find out what will come before because his words are cut of by a loud pounding against our suite door.
“Elliot,” he sighs, shaking his head and I laugh as he pulls back the blankets and makes for the dresser where his pajama bottoms are stored.
Elliot continues to bang on the door until Christian answers it, so as he hurries off to let his family in and hopefully prevent any noise complaints from making it to the front desk, I go to the phone on the table in our bedroom and call my mother’s room to make sure she’s on her way up. She tells me that she is and that she and Bob will be here in just a few minutes, so I wish her Merry Christmas, hang up the phone, and then quickly dial room service to order peppermint hot cocoa, tea, coffee, and cinnamon buns for everyone. I even think to order a bowl of fruit for Gia, because it’s Christmas and I don’t want to start off the holiday being petty.
Once the order is placed, I move to my own set of drawers in search of something comfortable to wear, but quickly find that Christian’s idea of sleepwear for me on this trip is not something that’s appropriate for unwrapping packages with our family. I roll my eyes at the sheer, black material I pull from the drawer and then quickly move over to Christian’s side. I find a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, which I assume he must have brought to use in the gym, and hurriedly throw them on, tightening the baggy waist band and yanking up the too long pant legs so that I can walk.
When I get out to the sitting room, I find all of the Greys already seated around the gigantic, glittering Christmas tree, chatting happily with each other as Mia bounces up and down in her seat with excitement. My eyes shift over to Gia and I take a sharp intake of breath when I see that her idea of appropriate family pajamas are a thin, black and pink oriental style chemise and a matching silk robe. I can see every curve of her body and it immediately has my eyes darting to Christian. Thankfully, he seems fully preoccupied with Mia and doesn’t even given her a sideways glance. Grace on the other hand, I can tell is less than pleased.
There’s a soft knock on the door behind me, so I move across the entryway to answer it.
“Merry Christmas, sweetheart!” My mother cries, immediately stepping through the door to hug me.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” I reply, hugging her quickly and then moving around her for Bob. When I turn around, I see that Christian has joined us and is now accepting his own hug from my mother. I wait for her to release him and then cross the hall to take him by the hand. I expect him to make some kind of announcement about our engagement, but he doesn’t. There’s a possibility he’s got something planned for that, he does like grand gestures, so until I know for sure what he wants to do I subtly press our conjoined hands into his pants to hide the ring in the fabric.
He leads me to one of the chairs in the sitting room and we continue to talk for a few minutes until breakfast arrives, but Mia’s too anxious to sit and wait for presents while everyone eats, so we decide to do both at the same time.
“Okay, Mia, you can play Santa,” Grace says, and she quickly darts from her place next to Christian to the floor by the tree where she passes out gifts. I blush slightly as I watch the gifts pile up in front of me, far out numbering the packages in front of anyone else, but I feel a little less guilty when we start unwrapping and I find that most of the packages are baby things from Grace and my mom.
“And, this one is for you, Christian,” Mia says. “From Ana.”
He gives me a curious look as he reaches out to take the large, flat rectangular box from his sister and then begins tearing away my white and silver snowflake wrapping paper. Before lifting the lid away from the box, he shakes it a little but it doesn’t make any noise.
I roll my eyes. “Just open it.”
He smiles at me, then tears the tape securing the top to the bottom and pulls away the lid. When he looks inside, I can tell he’s trying to mitigate his disappointed reaction to what he’s unwrapped.
“It’s… a pillow,” he says, glancing over at me with a small amount of confusion.
“It’s not just a pillow,” I tell him. “Although, I did have to go through Gail to find one that met your exact specifications because apparently there’s only one kind of pillow in the world you can sleep on. But Barney helped me develop this one. There’s two actually, this one for you to have in Seattle and another one that I have on my bed in Cambridge. They’re connected through bluetooth and when one of us lays down on the one that we have, the other one will glow. I thought it would help us feel more connected, make it feel like we we’re sleeping next to each other even when there’s 3000 miles of distance between us.”
Slowly, a smile begins to creep across his face and he looks down at the box in his lap with new interest.
“I love it,” he says. “I really, really love it. Thank you, Ana.”
“You’re welcome,” I tell him, and then lean over to kiss him softly on his lips.
“I don’t see one from Christian to Ana,” Mia says. “Is it not under the tree?”
“Oh, I uh… I kind of jumped the gun and gave Ana her gift last night,” Christian says sheepishly.
“Bow chicka wow wow,” Elliot says, and I turn to glare at him.
“Well, what was it?” My mother asks, very clearly putting a great deal of effort into ignoring Elliot’s implication. I turn to look at Christian, checking to see if he’s ready to announce our engagement now, or if he had plans to do it later.
“Go ahead,” he says, unable to contain his smile. I bite down on my lip and pull my hand out from beneath me to show everyone in the room the ring resting on my finger.
“Oh my god, they’re engaged!” Mia shrieks, and she practically launches herself off the floor to get a closer look at the ring. “Holy crap, it’s huge! Not even Kate Middleton has a ring like this!”
“Oh, Ana,” my mother gasps. “Honey, it’s absolutely incredible. I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”
“Thank you, Mom,” I say, getting out of my seat to accept the hug she offers.
“Congratulations, sweetheart,” she whispers in my ear. “I know that he makes you very happy and that’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”
“Thank you,” I say again, and she smiles at me before turning for Christian.
I hug Bob and then turn around just in time to be swept up into a lung crushing bear hug from Elliot.
“Easy, Elliot,” Christian warns him. “She’s still pregnant.”
“But she’s going to be my sister!” He exclaims excitedly. “My honest to god sister!”
I laugh as he shakes me a little, then sets me back on the ground and plants a huge, wet kiss on each of my cheeks, promising various forms of torture now that we’re going to be officially family as he beams down at me.
“Congratulations, Son,” Carrick says, reaching out to shake Christian’s hand.
“And, Ana. Daughter in law,” he continues, testing the words as he turns towards me. “This is the greatest Christmas gift Christian could have given me.”
“You already have a daughter,” I laugh, nudging him slightly, but Carrick shakes his head.
“Not a daughter. Now one of my kids will have actually graduated from Harvard. He’s finally given me a legacy!”
I laugh as I hug him and then turn, expecting Grace to be the next one to hug me, but she isn’t there.
“Mom?” Christian checks. I lean around Carrick’s shoulder and see Grace, still seated in her chair, sobbing into her hands. “What’s the matter?” He asks.
She looks up at us, tears still swimming in her eyes, and shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says. “Absolutely nothing.” She gets out of her seat to hug her son, but once her arms wrap around him, she breaks down again, harder than before.
“Mom,” Christian says, almost embarrassed.
“Last Christmas, you weren’t here,” she says through her tears as she pulls back to look at him, holding her hands against his face so that he can’t break eye contact with her. “Last Christmas I didn’t know if we’d ever have anything like this ever again and now here we are. We’re together, and you have a baby on the way and you’re getting married… I didn’t know if that would ever happen for you. Seeing you like this, so in love and happy, I can’t tell you how much joy that brings me, Christian.”
“Thank you, Mom,” Christian says, hugging her again. She cries softly into his shoulder for a moment and then pushes him away to hug me.
“Anastasia, I will be so proud to have you in my family, to be my daughter. I am so grateful for you, every single day. I love you so much, darling girl.”
“I love you too, Grace,” I tell her, and she hugs me tightly again.
“Dude, we’ve got to start planning your bachelor party right now. It’s going to be so sick. Does anyone in this room know how many strippers there actually are in Vegas? This is research, I’m going to need a number.”
“Very funny,” I say, turning to give him a stern look, but he just flashes me a cocky smile in return.
“Ah, come on, Ana. Even you couldn’t deny a man strippers at his own bachelor party. It’s tradition, and Christian is a very traditional man.”
“I mean, he can do what he wants to do…” I begin turning to look from Elliot to Christian. “But just know that if you let Elliot plan a bachelor party for you, Kate is going to have to plan one for me and what happens in Vegas…”
“No strippers,” Christian says firmly, not needing me to finish before he’s made up his mind.
“Riiiiiight,” Elliot says, like he’s hearing some kind of secret implication behind Christian’s words. “No, we won’t have any strippers. We’ll just stay home and have a quiet night in with the boys.” He winks at Christian and I roll my eyes, which actually causes me to catch sight of Gia. She’s still seated in her chair, and she looks pale, as if all the blood has drained out of her face. When she sees me looking at her though, she gets out of her seat and crosses the empty space between us to give me a limp hug.
“Congratulations, Ana,” she says. “I’m so happy for you.”
“Thanks,” I reply, my voice a little tighter than it should be. “Did you get a chance to see the ring?” I thrust my hand out in front of her, twisting my fingers so that the diamond on my hand sparkles in the light, and she swallows before nodding and forcing a smile.
“It’s really beautiful. The diamond is… flawless.”
“Just like the girl I’m going to marry,” Christian says, resting his hand on my lower back. She looks up at him, nods, and then takes a step forward to give him a hug as well.
“Thank you, Gia,” he says, and then carefully moves her away from him to return to my side. I give her a boastful smile and then turn in Christian’s arms, making a little bit of a show out of kissing him in front of her.
That’s right, Gia. He’s mine. OFFICIALLY mine. Back off.
Christian already has the Palace of Versailles booked for that night, but since the ring he planned to give me there is already firmly on my finger, we decide not to let the flowers and the candles go to waste and invite the family to join us there for Christmas dinner. Christian has requested a table be set in the Hall of Mirrors, one of the most famous and beautiful parts of the enormous chateau, but the place settings have not been laid out by the time we arrive so we’re offered a private tour of the palace while the rest of the staff finishes setting up. Mostly we’re led through different apartments, including the king’s private chambers. I feel my cheeks blush when the guide takes us into the petit appartement de la reine, Marie Antoinette’s bedroom, and I have it confirmed to me that the room Christian and I have done all manner of dirty things to each other in all week is, in fact, an exact replica of the room we’re now standing in with his entire family.
There are five chapels we’re taken through, each one elaborate and architecturally beautiful. The largest, the Chapel Royal, has vague similarities to Notre Dame, though I’m not sure if that’s intentional or simply a result of classic French cathedral architecture. We walk past the high stone pillars, over the intricate stone floors, and beneath the ornately painted ceiling until we once again end at a gargantuan golden altar.
“This is absolutely stunning,” my mother whispers as she stares up at the mural overhead that feels as though it could probably give the Sistine Chapel a run for its money.
“It is,” Grace agrees, and then she suddenly lights up. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the two of you got married here? Oh just think of it, a long white carpet down the center aisle here and all of these gorgeous pillars and balconies covered in gauze and flowers!”
“Maybe,” Christian says, but I can tell by his tone that he’s more placating his mother than actually considering it. She doesn’t seem to pick up on that though because both she and my mother are suddenly scurrying across the open floor planning where people would stand and how the guest seating would be arranged.
“Speaking of our wedding,” Christian whispers in my ear. “Come. I want to show you something.” He wraps his hand around mine and slowly leads me back through the archway and out of the chapel, successfully using our mother’s excitement as a way for us to sneak out without being noticed. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be wandering around the palace alone so as he leads me through the hallways, I find myself looking over my shoulder every few seconds to see if we’re being followed by the curator.
Luckily, I never see any of the staff lurking behind us and after several twists and turns, he stops at a pair of grand double doors and motions me forward. “After you,” he tells me.
I smile at him and then grasp onto the golden handle to ease the door open enough for the two of us to slip inside. The room I step into is the opera house, and the moment my eyes get the chance to scan the enormous, rounded space, I’m left breathless.
There’s yet another intricately painted mural covering the ceiling and the three levels of embellishments and railings on the balconies are also in gold, which by now I assume must have been the preferred design of the French Monarchy. This difference is that this room hasn’t been left untouched to reflect the way it looked centuries ago when Louis XIV roamed these halls, at least not tonight.
The balconies where the aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France used to gather to watch the performances of the world’s most famous operas are now cascading with thousands of fragrant flowers, tumbling softly to the floor three stories below in long, bright white garlands. The dozen or so candelabra chandeliers that hang from the ceiling are lit, adding to the glow of the hundreds, maybe thousands of candles flickering all around the room. In the pit below the stage before us, there is an orchestra waiting, and the moment the door closes behind us, they begin to play. I pause to listen, but once I recognize the melody, I turn to Christian with confusion.
“Is this… Flashing Lights by Kanye West?”
“I told you it was the song that was playing when you first said yes to me,” he says. “We were in a nightclub in Vegas, I don’t know what you want from me.”
I laugh. “I can’t believe you remember what song was playing.”
“I remember everything about that night. I remember how short your dress was and how much I hated watching every man at Chateau stare at you while you were dancing. I remember the way you held yourself while you sat in the booth next to me, fidgeting while you tried to figure out why I hadn’t been answering your phone calls or responding to your texts. I remember our first kiss that night and how you tasted of vodka and lime. I remember the way it felt when I first got to wrap your body around me in the elevator on the way up to my suite in the Bellagio. And I remember every sound, every gasp, and every moan you made when I got to make you mine for the very first time. I’ve replayed every moment of that night in my mind for the past three years, immortalizing it. It was the single best night of my entire life, until last night, when you agreed to spend forever with me.”
“Forever,” I repeat. “It’s funny how even that doesn’t seem like enough time to spend with you.”
“No amount of time could be,” he agrees. “I love you, Anastasia, with everything I have inside of me, and this ring I’ve given you is my promise that I will love you this way until my very last day.”
“The way I’ll love you in return,” I tell him, and then reach up to place my hands on his face, the ring on my finger catching the dancing candle light all around me, before I place my lips against his to seal my promise.
He pulls me into him, kissing me deeply, intimately, and then takes my hand and sways back and forth with me to the music. I feel actual butterflies rise within me as I immerse myself in this moment with him. It perfectly encapsulates everything I wanted out of this trip. One beat in time for us to stop and truly feel the depth of love we hold for each other, to appreciate it for what it is now, and then to look to the future with the knowledge of just how strong this foundation that we’ve built together is. It’s a truly magical moment that feels impenetrable from all of the worries of the outside world until the last notes of the orchestra die out and I hear the musical ring of my phone inside my purse.
I reach into my bag, pull out my phone, and then feel my stomach seize with anxiety as I look down at the screen.
“It’s my dad,” I say, and the apprehensive edge I can hear in my voice as I read the unfamiliar number has me feeling even more uneasy. I’ve never been nervous to talk to my father before in my life, but after Thanksgiving, the idea of once again sharing life altering news with him almost has me too scared to pick up the call.
“Well, answer it,” Christian encourages me, so I take a deep breath and press the green phone icon on the screen.
“It’s not too early is it?” He asks. “I… I kind of rushed here so that I would be the first.”
“No, it’s actually kind of late for me. I’m not in Washington, I’m in Paris.”
“Paris?” He repeats. “What are you doing in Paris?”
“It was a surprise from Christian. He wanted to bring me here as a graduation gift in May, but I’m going to be so pregnant then that he decided Christmas would be better. Mom and Bob, and his family are here too.”
“Oh,” he says awkwardly, and then let’s out what I assume must be a calming breath. “Paris, huh? That’s really something. Have you had a good time?”
“Yeah, the best time,” I say, trying to cover the quiver in my voice. I know that crying is imminent, but I don’t know whether that’s because I’m afraid of where this conversation is going to go or because he just sounds like my dad again, and not the angry man who’d hung up on me the last time I talked to him.
“Ana,” he begins cautiously. “I need to apologize to you, sweetheart. I wasn’t being fair to you on Thanksgiving.”
“No, please let me finish. I love you very, very much and I will always be there for you and I will always support you, no matter what. I just wasn’t prepared for any of that. You really blindsided me there, Annie. A baby? And a guy you’ve had in your life for years, but never told me about? I didn’t how to take that. I still don’t. It feels like you’ve been living this whole life without me and I don’t even know who you are anymore. And I know that I’ve been gone, so it’s not always easy for us to stay in touch with each other, I knew that I’d probably miss some things being over here… but this is more than that. This is big, life changing stuff, and I can’t figure out why you would keep that from me.”
“It just…” I stop as I try to formulate my feelings into words, but there’s no easy way to tell him that I’d deliberately kept him in the dark. Especially because I don’t want to get into the reasons why I made those decisions right now. I don’t want to tell my father about Elena, or the trial, or anything we’ve gone through this year until he’s gotten the chance to meet Christian and get to know the person he is, not just the choices he’s made in the past.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” I continue. “Christian and I have a complicated history and I didn’t know how to explain it to you. I just didn’t want you to worry about me.”
“That’s the thing, kid. I always worry about you. You’re my daughter and I will worry about you until the day I die. Keeping secrets from me and shutting me out of your life is not the way to keep me from worrying. I’m more worried now than I’ve ever been. It’s consuming me. My job is to provide for you and to protect you and to make sure that you’re happy. I can’t do that if you’re not honest with me and being your dad is not a job that I can fail at. I would never forgive myself.”
“I know you are. And I’m sorry for the way I’ve handled this whole situation. Even when I’m mad at you, I still love you, that’s unconditional. So, let’s leave this mess in the past and move forward, okay?”
“Thank you,” I tell him. “I’m so happy you said that because there’s so much I want to tell you.”
“More surprises?” He asks, on his guard again.
“Sort of. I’m engaged. Christian asked me to marry him last night and I said yes.”
“Well, I can’t really say that’s a surprise. I figured that’d be coming soon after that letter he wrote to me.”
“Letter?” I repeat, looking over at Christian with a furrowed brow. He didn’t tell me he’d written to my dad.
“Yeah,” my dad confirms. “I got it a few days ago and I’ve read it probably a thousand times since then.”
“And… he has excellent penmanship.”
“Dad,” I groan and he lets out a hint of a laugh before continuing.
“He says he loves you and he went on about it so long, and I mean long, that I’m inclined to believe it’s true. I want to believe everything is as wonderful as you tell me it is and as he tells me it is, but the truth is, I don’t know him. He could just be telling me what I want to hear, and I have no guage on him to judge that by.”
“He’s not,” I promise him. “You’ll get to know him soon and you’ll see that he’s not. I can’t wait for you to meet him. You’re going to love him, Daddy.”
He sighs. “You know, I always had a picture in my head of how all of this would go. All those years I was waiting for you to bring your first boyfriend home, I spent a lot of time thinking through how I’d handle it. I thought I’d get to shake his hand and look him in the eye, test how confident he was meeting me. I’d get to see what kind of car he drove and the places he’d take you. I’d get to listen to the way he spoke to you. And, when the two of you got serious, I’d get to sit him down, have a beer, and really get to know him. Threaten him a little. Tell him how much you mean to me and how important it is that he treat you the way you deserve to be treated. This guy you’re with, this Christian Grey… he’s a stranger to me. You’re marrying a stranger, Ana. You’re having a child with a stranger. I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that made me nervous and… that it didn’t hurt a little.”
“I know,” I agree. “And, I’m so sorry. But when you come home, I know that he would love to sit down and have that beer with you and tell you everything you want to know about him. He treats me really well, Dad. Sometimes better than I think I deserve. He’s one of the good ones. I promise.”
“Is he at least a Seahawks fan?”
I laugh. “You know I wouldn’t settle for anything less.”
“Well, then I guess he can’t be all bad,” he says with a small chuckle. “So… you’re gonna have a baby. I can’t wrap my head around that.”
“I know, it’s so weird. I was terrified when I first found out, but now I just can’t wait to hold her.”
“Her?” He repeats. “It’s a girl?”
“Yeah, we just found out a few days ago.”
“A granddaughter,” he whispers, I think more to himself than to me because of the mixture of disbelief and joy in his voice. “Have you decided what you’re going to name her?”
“No. Actually, we haven’t talked about names at all yet. This is all a little overwhelming for us.”
“Well, Ray can go both ways, just so you know.”
“We’ll keep that in mind.” I reply, rolling my eyes but still smiling as I imagine the look on his face on the other side of the phone.
He doesn’t have long to talk so we quickly move on to school and finals. I tell him that I think I’ve done well enough to keep my perfect average but that I won’t know for sure until I’ve gotten my grades back. He offers his opinion on publishing my book with a pen name and commends me for staying true to myself and my own vision. I give him updates on my mom and Kate and promise to pass his love onto both of them, but I can tell by the way the conversation is winding down that he has to get off the phone soon and it makes my throat tighten. This is it, the last chance I’m going to hear his voice before he comes back home, and I’m not ready to let him go yet.
“Hey, send me a sonogram, would you?” He asks. “Then next time you send me a letter? I want to show the boys. I’m about to be a grandfather.”
“Of course,” I agree. “We just got some really good 3D pictures, I’ll send those to you once I get home.”
“Good. I uh… I’ve got to get off here.”
“Just a few more minutes,” I plead.
“That’s not my choice, Annie. But write to me, let me know what you decide about your book and how your last semester goes. I miss you so much, baby girl. I can’t tell you how much I just want to hold you in my arms right now.”
“I miss you too,” I tell him, blinking back the tears threatening to pour over my lower lids as I hear the pain in his voice. The same pain I feel deep in my heart every time I think of him. “You’re going to be here for graduation, right?”
“That’s the plan,” he says. “I’ll see you in a few months, okay? I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you, too.”
“Good-bye, Annie. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Daddy.”
I wait for the clicking sound that tells me he’s hung up the phone and then let myself devolve into tears. The moment I lower the phone from my ear, Christian’s arms are around me.
“Is everything, okay?”
“Yeah,” I nod. “I think he’s coming around. I just.. That’s it. No more phone calls.”
“Just a few more months,” he says softly. “We can make it through anything for a few months, remember?”
“Yeah.” His arms wrap tighter around me and I bury my face into his shirt and inhale deeply, letting his familiar smell comfort me as I mentally calculate the months between now and graduation.
“He told me you wrote to him,” I say, once the tears have stopped. “You didn’t tell me that you did that.”
“Yeah, well… it seemed the least I could do. I just wanted him to know that I really do love you and that my intentions are pure.”
“Well, whatever you said seems to have worked. He didn’t freak out when I told him we’re getting married and that was my biggest fear. You owe him a beer when he gets home though.”
“He can have as many as he wants. Seriously, the more alcohol the better. I can hold my own in a fight but your dad has military training and can use a gun, so the slower his reflexes are, the better.”
I laugh. “I think you’ll be okay. He’s going to love you.”
Christian smiles down at me and then reaches over to the railing next to us, plucks one of the white roses from the flora wrapped around the bannister, and hands it to me. I reach down to brush my finger over the soft, fragrant petal until he reaches beneath my chin and tilts my face up to his.
“I love you,” he says. “And I can’t wait to join my life with yours.”
“We already have,” I tell him. “Everything else is just paperwork.”
He smiles and then lowers his lips to mine, and standing there with him surrounded by the flowers, the soft glow of the candles, and the music once again filling the opera house, I can imagine how his proposal was meant to go and it makes me wish I could say yes to him all over again.
“Pardonnez moi, Monsieur Grey,” a voice says. “Le dîner est servi au salon des glaces.”
“Je vous remercie,” Christian replies, and he turns back to face me, places one final soft kiss on my lips, and then takes my hand to lead me out of the opera house. I glance over my shoulder at the beautiful scene he’d planned for us one more time, inhaling the intoxicating scent of the roses, jasmine, and gardenias spread through the room, using every sense I have at my disposal to cement this moment in my memory forever.
The next morning I wake up feeling as though the past few days must have been a dream, and until I’ve replayed every moment in my mind and convinced myself everything that has happened was real, I refuse to open my eyes. We have two more days in Paris, but I have no idea how anything we do from here on out could even compare to what’s already happened. Well, I do have one idea, and we happen to be in the perfect place to kick off boxing day in exactly the right way, so I ease open my eyes and reach over to Christian’s side of the bed, but then sit up when I find it empty.
“Christian?” I call, peering over to the bathroom and listening for any indication he may be in the shower. He isn’t though, the room is silent, and as I frown and glance back over to his side of the bed, I notice a note resting on his nightstand.
You looked so peaceful, I couldn’t wake you. I’m at the gym. Be back soon.
I love you.
I sigh and collapse back in my pillows, thinking vaguely of trying to sleep for another few minutes while I wait for him to get back. When I close my eyes though, images of him shirtless and lifting weights, his perfect muscles swollen with exertion and every curve of his body glistening with sweat, I find my mind quickly going right back to where I was before I discovered him missing. Perhaps I can coax him away from his work out in favor of another kind of exercise, or maybe convince him to hit the showers right there in the gym…
My thighs clench together as I imagine his body pressing against mine while he takes me roughly against the tile of the shower wall and before I know it, I’m scrambling out of bed, throwing on shorts and a t-shirt, and hurrying from the suite. But when I make it downstairs and round the corner into the gym, I find myself frozen in place, staring at the scene before me in shock.
“Push harder,” Christian says. “You can do it, just push it up into my hands.”
“I can’t,” Gia pants. “I can’t, it’s too heavy.”
“It’s only ten pounds heavier than the last time, and it’s twenty pounds lighter than your goal. You can do this, don’t disappoint yourself. I’m right here, and I’ve got you. Just push!”
She’s laying on a bench press in a pair of tiny shorts and a sports bra, holding a barbell loaded with heavy looking weights on either side over her chest. Christian stands over her, shirtless and sweaty, his hands hooked beneath the bar, but not bearing any of the weight.
“Okay,” Gia says, preparing herself, and she shoves hard against the metal in her hands and inches it up towards Christian.
“That’s it,” he encourages her. “Almost there. Keep going, keep going…”
The sound of metal clinking hard against metal reverberates around the room as she rolls the heavy weight into the hooks on the bench and then laughs.
“Oh my god, I’m dying,” she says, laughing through her relief and satisfaction, and Christian smiles down at her and then reaches out for her hand to help her off the bench.
“But you did it,” he says. “And after you do it a few more time, I’m going to add more weight.”
“Slave driver,” she says, smiling broadly, and then steps forward wrap him in a hug.
“Christian,” I blurt out quickly before she’s pressed up against him, and as he turns to look at me, Gia freezes.
“Ana!” She exclaims with surprise.
“No,” Christian says quickly. “The doctor said no machines, Ana.”
I feel my lips tighten together and I have to work really hard not to let what I’m feeling about him being down here alone and half naked with Gia show in my voice, because I get the feeling it would be a really bad idea to get in a fight with him in front of her right now. Especially because an argument would likely mean more time for him in here where she’ll get to corner him, comfort him, while he’s alone and angry at me.
“I wasn’t coming down here to run, I was just looking for you.” I say, trying and failing to keep my voice calm.
“Oh,” he says. “Well, we’re just about done here. I’ll meet you back upstairs in about ten minutes?”
“Guys!” Elliot interrupts me, yelling far too loud and sounding out of breath as he runs up next to me. I turn to look at him and my irritation with the whole Christian/Gia situation immediately vanishes when I see the tear streaks on his cheeks.
“What’s wrong?” Christian asks, immediately on alert.
“Nothing,” Elliot pants, shaking his head. “We’ve got to get to the airport. We’ve got to go home. Now.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Dad just got off the phone with his doctor. They’ve found a liver.”