Chapter 21

For the second night in a row, I’m pulled abruptly from sleep because of a nightmare. Only, this time, it’s not mine.

“No, Ana!” Christian screams, and I immediately sit bolt upright in bed, looking wildly around the room as I try and negotiate my surroundings. “Don’t… don’t go,” his voice begs through the darkness.

“Christian,” I say, turning and reaching out to try and gently nudge him out of his dream. “Hey. Wake up, baby.”  

“No! Come back!”

“Christian!” My voice is more forceful this time as I take hold of his shoulders, shaking him until his eyes snap open and begin dancing back and forth with confusion. “It’s okay, I’m here. You’re okay.”

“Ana?” he checks, as though he isn’t really sure it’s me.

“Yeah, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Fuck,” he breathes, and the next thing I know he’s rolling me onto my back and climbing over the top of me. His lips come down on mine and his hands reach down for the hem of my camisole. He yanks it quickly over my head, only breaking our kiss when absolutely necessary, before moving on to my panties.

“Christian,” I protest against his lips, but he simply groans and moves his tongue deeper into my mouth. The moment my panties are gone, his hand is between my legs, teasing my clitoris. He works quickly, dipping his fingers inside of me as soon as there’s enough moisture to allow him easy access and then returning to my cliotirs again, using my arousal to heighten the sensation.

“There you go,” he growls when, a few seconds later, I’m slick and ready for him. Without removing his lips from mine, he pulls his hand from between my legs and I feel him raise himself off the bed just enough to get his boxers down over his hips. In the next second, he’s thrusting inside of me.  

“Fuck!” I yell, unprepared for the sudden invasion, but he doesn’t still to give me time to adjust to him. He dives in and out of me hard and fast, his hands holding me so tightly it feels as though he’s clinging to me for dear life.

“Ana,” he moans again, my name crossing his lips with the same reverence as a prayer. “Oh, god, Ana!”

I arch my back and then tilt my pelvis up to give him a better angle, but he’s so erratic it’s hard to lose myself in him. One moment, he’s lying right over the top of me, kissing me with a kind of frenzied passion that’s almost alarming, and the next he’s holding himself up on his extended arms, staring down at my body and examining every inch of me as though he’s trying to find some kind of proof I’m not real.

“Christian?” I try again as, once again, his face morphs with a sharp flash of pain, and the pace in which he’s moving in and out of me quickens.

“Mine,” he growls. “You’re mine.”

He lowers himself onto me once more and I whimper slightly as he yanks my leg up into the crook of his elbow so that he can take me deeper. I grip onto his shoulders and turn to face him, trying to force him to make eye contact with me, but now that his skin is pressed against mine again, his eyes are closed and his mouth is open in a silent gasp of pleasure.

“Fuck,” he hisses. His muscles tense, and then relax in the span of a few seconds, accompanying the faint rippling sensation inside of me. Holy fuck, did he just…

He releases my leg and positions his body so that he’s touching as much of me as possible without forcing his full weight onto me. His mouth finds mine again, the same urgent kind of hunger keeping his lips tense, and when he breaks the kiss, he rests his forehead against mine until he regains control of his breathing.

“I love you,” he whispers.

“I love you, too.”

He’s quiet for a moment and I think I hear him swallow. When he speaks again, there’s almost a  kind of nervous tremble to his deep tenor.

“Say it again.”

“What?”

“Say that you… I need to hear…” he pauses, and I pull him back from me so that I can finally look into his eyes.

“Hey. What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he replies quickly, shaking his head.

“Christian, talk to me.”

He takes a deep breath. “I just dreamed… you were gone. I’d lost you again.”

“I’m right here,” I reassure him. “And I’m not going anywhere. I love you.”

He nods and then leans down to kiss me once more before he rolls out of bed and moves to the dresser to pull a pair of sweatpants from his drawer.

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“I’m going to go check on some things for work. I’ll be in my office.”

“Christian, it’s 3:30 in the morning,” I argue, but he ignores me and continues through the door out to the great room anyway. As I fall back into my pillows, I think about going after him to try and coax him back into bed to talk to me more, but I know from experience that, sometimes, he’s more open with me when I give him the space he needs until he’s ready to come to me on his own.

I fall asleep debating what I want to do.

Christian is still locked away in his office when I wake again several hours later, and, according to Gail, he hasn’t stepped out once since she’s been awake. I frown as I look towards the hallway that leads to his office and think that maybe, before I head into the lion’s den, it might be a good idea to bring him some food… and caffeine.

“Can I make a plate for you, Miss Steele?” Gail asks, as she places a slice of quiche on a plate for Christian.

“I think I’m just going to have a green smoothie this morning,” I tell her while I pull a mug out of the cupboard for Christian’s coffee. She purses her lips together, but doesn’t say anything as she moves to get the blender. I begin to pour the dark, aromatic liquid into the mug on the counter, but, as I look down at the quiche next to me that I know she wants me to take, I hear the ping of the elevator.

I glance up and see Gia step out into the foyer, looking angry, and I have a pretty good idea why. Hurriedly, I place the carafe back on the counter and then scurry around into the great room to run interference, but, thankfully, Luke steps out of the security office first.

“Miss Matteo?” he greets her coolly.

“Is Christian in his office?”

Mr. Grey, is not currently taking visitors. I’d be happy to pass along a message for you.”

“I just need him to make a quick phone call to clear something up for me,” she argues. “If you’ll excuse me.”

She attempts to move around Luke but he takes a step to stand in her way once again. She glares at him.

“Is Taylor in there?”

“Yes, but I’m afraid he’s not going to help you either, Miss Matteo. Mr. Grey’s orders were very clear.”

She straightens and her lips form a tight line just as I step into the foyer behind Luke. “Is everything okay in here?”

“Yes, Miss Steele,” Luke says. “Miss Matteo was just leaving.”

“No,” she argues. “I wasn’t. Ana, can you please take me back to Christian? For some reason that store we were in yesterday is suddenly refusing me service and they still have my dress. I need him to call the store and clear up whatever it is…”

“Yeah, about that,” I interrupt her. “There was some kind of problem with the dress and since you put it under the Grey account, they called Christian. He didn’t know what they were talking about so they cancelled the transaction.”

“So, why didn’t you say anything?”

“Honestly, I forgot that you were there with us,” I say, giving her the same fake innocent look she gave Kate yesterday after she’d confronted her about trying to steal Christian. “Pregnancy brain, I guess.”

“Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do?” she asks. “The GEH event is in less than twelve hours.”

“I suggest you hurry and find something then. Macy’s should be opening soon right?” I give her a snide smirk and then turn to saunter back into the apartment.

“Ana!”

“If you’ll just step back into the elevator, Miss Matteo,” Luke says, and my smile broadens as I hear her frustrated snarl and then the sound of her heels against the marble as she turns to leave.

Gail has laid Christian’s breakfast out on a tray, so I carefully pick it up from the counter and then make my way down the hallway towards his office. When I get to the door, I can hear him talking on the phone inside, so I ease into the room as quietly as I can.

“No, of course I understand,” he says to whoever he’s on the phone with. “Can I do anything?”

His eyes follow me as I walk up alongside he desk and gently place the tray in front of him, and, while I turn to wait patiently for him to finish his phone call, he continues staring intently at me.

“That’s great news. Wish him luck for me. I’ll come by first thing tomorrow morning. Love you too. Bye.”

“What was that?” I ask, as he hangs up the phone, but he ignores my question and turns a sharp look back on me.

“Why aren’t you wearing your engagement ring?”

“What?” I ask. I look down at my hand for a second and then back up at him with a little exasperation.

“It’s too big to sleep with it on,” I tell him. “I don’t really want to hit myself, or you, in the face with a 16-carat diamond in the middle of the night.”

“You’re not sleeping anymore,” he argues, and I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes.

“I just got out of bed to bring you breakfast and make sure you’re okay. I will put it on once I go brush my teeth, I promise.” He narrows his eyes at me so I quickly move back to his phone call before we end up in an argument over nothing.

“Who was on the phone?”

“My mother.  They’ve pulled lifesupport from the donor in Portland, so he’s having his surgery today. She was calling to tell me she won’t be attending the gala tonight.”

“Oh, that’s great news! Should we cancel?”

“I can’t, I’m hosting,” he says, and as he picks up the coffee I’ve brought him, he reaches out for a manilla envelope on the corner of his desk and tosses it to me.

“Since you’re here, I need to you sign the AoI for the foundation,” he says.

I pick up the envelope and give him a confused look. “You just said a lot of things I don’t understand.”

“I’m starting a foundation to help support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” he explains. “I’m naming you as a member of the board of directors so I need you to sign the forms that have to be filed with the state to make the non-profit legitimate.”

“Oh.” I pull back the flap on the envelope and slide a stack of forms out from inside that are headed in bold font with, The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation. “Uh… Christian and Anastasia Grey?”

“Yeah.”

“Christian, this is a legal document.”

“I know,” he says. “That’s why I need your signature.”

“But… we’re not married yet. My name is Steele.”

“It’s easier to change your name as listed on the board of directors than it is to change the title of the non-profit,” he dismisses me. “It’s just future planning.”

“But, we haven’t even discussed this yet. I’m not even sure I’m going to change my name.”

His head snaps up and his eyes narrow in on me again. “What do you mean you’re not going to change your name?”

“I don’t know… I’m the last Steele. If I change my name to Grey then my dad will be the last Steele and he’ll know that his legacy ends with him. If I keep my name, our children will be Steele-Grey and he…”

“No,” he cuts me off. “Absolutely not.”

“What?”

“My children will have my name, and my name only. We’re not hyphenating anything.”

“And I don’t get a say in that? That’s just your decision to make alone?”

“Yes, it is. No hyphenating.”

I cross my arms. “Well, if you’re so adamant about that, maybe you should take Steele.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous? So, you just expect me to change my name to yours, but the very idea of you possibly taking my name is ridiculous to you?”

“Correct.”

My mouth drops open at his audacity and soon, we’re in the middle one of the biggest blowouts we’ve ever had. He escalates every argument I make to an extremely unreasonable level so nothing gets resolved in the thirty minutes we spend screaming at each other, nor in the cold war like silence that follows after I eventually walk away and sequester myself in our bedroom. When it comes time to get ready for the event later that night, I’m still fuming with anger, and saying all the thing I wish I would have thought to say when we were fighting earlier into the mirror over and over again makes applying makeup extremely difficult.

It brings up a lot of what it was like the last time we attended a big event like this together, the Governor’s Ball, and when he comes into the bathroom to take a shower without speaking a single word to me, it feels as though I’m having lucid, PTSD flashbacks. It also reminds me that Kate had been here with me that night to help me get ready and the longing I feel for that support is especially poignant when I finish with my hair and makeup and am ready to get into my dress.

The Alexander McQueen gown Caroline Acton ordered has been tucked away in the closet for future use and the blush colored Elie Saab, which Gail has had steamed and pressed for tonight, is laying on the bed. I slide into it and try to ignore how tightly it fits against my skin since Gia had required several inches to be taken in. Once I’ve struggled to get the zipper up alone, I step in front of the full length mirror, slip on the diamond cuff bracelet and the Cartier earrings Christian gifted me our freshman year, and examine my reflection, twisting and turning to judge how I look in the dress. I’d feel more comfortable in something a little less form fitting, but I think the soft, draping fabric that hangs over the top of the constructed bodice is enough to conceal anything that would suggest I was pregnant. That’s not really something I’m ready to deal with in the press yet and I don’t know what to expect from this event in terms of photographers. In fact, I’m not even certain I want to wear my engagement ring…

I stare down at it, sparking in the muted light from the bedside lamp. Christian had snapped at me for not wearing it around the house, I’m certain it’ll be worse if I don’t wear it to a public event, especially after I’ve been fighting with him all afternoon. Still, I wonder if it’s something I should ask before we go. Afterall, he’s just as protective of our privacy as I am when it comes to the media, and he might want to have his PR team handle the announcement.

With a sigh, I slip on the shoes Caroline delivered with the dress and then make my way out to the great room. I find Christian standing in front of one of the huge scenic windows, staring out at the city lights and inky water of the sound with a tumbler of amber liquid hanging loosely from the hand at his side.

“I’m… ready,” I say hesitantly. He turns around to face me and the hard expression I’ve seen all day shifts. He looks at me in a way that, were we not currently fighting, I think would mean that we’d be very late for tonight’s event.

“You look beautiful,” he says. I smile and then twirl to give him the full effect of the dress.

“Really?” I check. “It’s a little tight… You don’t think I look fat do you?”

“Of course not. You look absolutely gorgeous.”

“Thank you. I’m not really sure if I want to tell everyone I’m pregnant yet and I wasn’t sure what the press was going to be like.”

“Well, since they ran our engagement announcement in the Seattle Times this morning, I assume there will be photographers waiting for us, but that’s why I have Jacqueline.”

“There was an engagement announcement?” I ask, surprised, and he nods.

He walks to the table in front of the sofa and picks up the paper, flipping back to a full page article titled, Billionaire CEO Christian Grey Engaged. It’s accompanied by a huge blown up photo of the two of us from the Governor’s Ball and a few family photos I’ve only ever seen on Grace’s wall.

“Where did they get these?” I ask as I look over a picture of Christian and I at Elliot’s birthday dinner on the beach in Hawaii that I’m pretty sure was taken by Mia.  

“I gave them to Jacquiline,” Christian says. “We’ve never had a portrait taken of the two of us so I had to make do with what was available.”

“You knew about this?”

“Of course I knew about this. I made the announcement.”

“And you didn’t think to talk to me about that before you sent personal pictures of us to be published in a newspaper?”

“It was this or wait for it to leak to the press and allow some sleazy reporter to control the narrative, probably call you a gold digger or accuse me of going to any lengths to cover up the accusations made against me last summer. I don’t know why you’re upset, this isn’t an unusual thing. People run engagement announcements every day.”

“Yeah, but most people don’t have a full page in the article in the society pages.”

“Are you telling me that you don’t want people to know? Is that why you made such a big deal out of changing your name? Why you weren’t wearing your ring? Have you changed your mind?”

“Of course not, but come on Christian, you know better than anyone else what this is going to mean. I still have three weeks in Seattle. This article means that until I go back to Cambridge, there are going to be photographers following me everywhere, trying to get a picture of me wearing this ring. I haven’t had to deal with any of that for months and, now that I’m pregnant, I don’t know if I can go through that right now. Don’t you remember what it was like when they found out we were dating? How we had to go all the way to Montesano just to have two days to ourselves? I couldn’t even get out of a car without being swarmed.”

“You have security, and, if you think you need more, I’ll hire more,” he argues, but I shake my head with exasperation..

“Are you like, allergic to talking to me before you make decisions like this?”

“Mr. Grey?” Taylor says, interrupting us and giving us each a chance to take a breath and step back. “The limousine is waiting downstairs.”

“Thank you, Taylor,” he says, and then turns back to me. “We’re going to be late.”

I push my lips together and turn back towards the elevator, refusing to look at either Christian or our security team as we make our way down to the elevator to the lobby.

Why is it Christian and I can never attend a public event in a good place with each other?

He was right about the press. When we pull up in front of the venue there is a hoard of photographers outside already taking pictures of the big name donors Christian was able to secure for the gala. Jacqueline is standing on the curb in a sleek, black gown, waiting for our arrival, and the moment the limousine comes to a stop, she’s opened our door and stuck her head inside.

“Keep Miss Steele on your left side so when she turns to pose for photos her ring is front and center,” she hisses quickly, and then opens the door for us to step out.

“Are you ready?” Christian asks. I look out at the flashing lights of the photographers and sigh.

“I guess I have to be.”

His jaw tightens at my less than enthused reaction. “Will you just act like you’re happy to be marrying me, please?”

Oh great.

“Christian, my frustration with you right now has nothing to do with…”

“We don’t have time to do this right now,” he cuts me off, and he turns to step out of the limo. I take a deep, calming breath, brace myself, and then take the hand he offers me to help me onto the sidewalk. He tucks my hand into his elbow and leads me forward, stopping to turn and pose for a picture that feels disgustingly fake. I angle my body into him and place my left hand on the lapel of his tuxedo jacket as we both stare into the blinding light exploding all around us, and, to Christian’s credit, he’s much better at hiding his irritation this time than he was at the last ball. His hand tightens around my waist and the way his lips brush lightly against my forehead as he pulls me into his side sends a welcome wave of comfort over me while, together, we face the hoard.

“Mr. Grey won’t be answering any questions,” Jacqueline says, stepping in front of us so that we can turn to head inside and silencing the garbled questions about wedding dates and venues being thrown at us. Someone calls to ask if I’m pregnant and I immediately feel my cheeks pink.

“They can’t tell,” Christian whispers in my ear. “You look stunning tonight, Anastasia.”

I nod and give him a nervous smile as he leads me inside.

The venue is absolutely beautiful. Unlike the last ball we attended together, which looked like an expensive wedding reception, the decor Christian has selected is sleek, modern, and young. It looks like a high class nightclub in here, especially with the DJ playing bass heavy music from the back of the dance floor. I take a sweeping glance of everything around us and then my gaze settles on Elliot and Gia standing near the bar, and Gia looking back at me with her mouth agape in shock. She’s wearing a plain black sheath gown that looks entirely unremarkable and doesn’t fit her the way I know she’d like it to, and, when I glance down at my dress, I feel a grim sense of satisfaction. At least one thing has gone according to plan tonight.

“Sick party, bro,” Elliot says as we make our way over to them. “I was afraid this was going to be stiff and I was going to regret coming, but I think you’d be able to sell tickets to this thing if you opened it to the public. You should go into the nightclub business.”

“Thanks, Elliot.”

“You look great, Ana,” he says, turning to me. “I saw your announcement in the paper this morning. I think Mom is having it framed.”

“Thank you, Elliot,” I reply, and then turn to give the still very angry blonde next to him a smug smile. “Gia, you look beautiful tonight.”

I lean into her and she grimaces as she kisses each of my cheeks. “So do you. That dress is gorgeous,” she says through her teeth.

“Thank you. Christian was very complimentary when he first saw me this evening.”

Christian looks down at me with a half smile and then leans over to kiss my hair before turning to Elliot. “Have you heard any more about Dad?”

“Not since we’ve gotten here. Last I heard they’ve taken the donor into surgery and Dad’s just waiting for them to start the transport before they prep him.”

“Yeah, that was the last I heard too,” Christian says.

“Well, by the time we leave here tonight, he’ll have a new liver and we can move on to the next step to getting him better,” Gia says, pouting her lips as she turns a carefully constructed look on Christian. It has my teeth on edge.

“Thank you, Gia,” Christian says, and then he tightens his grip on my waist. “We need to go mingle. There are a few potential clients here that I’m hoping to secure big contracts with by the end of the night.”

“Sure,” I nod, and then turn back to Gia. “Excuse me, wifely duty calls.”

She gives me a tight, closed lip smile as Christian leads me away to join Ros and Gwen just on the other side of the main entryway. They’re talking to a silver haired man with a woman, who can’t be much older than I am, clinging to his arm.

“Ah, here he is,” Ros says brightly. “Mr. Staiger, this is Christian Grey.”

“Pleasure,” Christian says, reaching out to shake his hand. “Mr. Staiger, this is my fiancée, Anastasia Steele.”

He shakes my hand as well, then turns back to Christian, and the two of them start talking business. I try really hard to look interested in their discussion at first, but I hardly understand anything they’re talking about and the things that I can follow are extraordinarily dull.

Once the ball shifts into full swing, waiters begin weaving their way through the crowded room carrying trays of champagne, but that doesn’t do anything for me, so, once there’s a break in the conversation, I gently place my hand on Christian’s arm and tell him that I’m going to go to the bar to get some water. He nods, kisses me on the cheek, and then goes back to discussing the future of the fiber optics market with Mr. Staiger.

I feel a small bit of relief being away from the interminable business talk, but there isn’t much else for me at this party. I don’t know anyone except Elliot, but he’s fully preoccupied with Gia and I’d rather spend three weeks listening to Christian trying to woo clients than spend a single evening trying to get along with her.

I wish Kate was here. Things were always so much easier when it was Kate pulling Elliot off into dark corners rather than the blonde haired succubus he has now.

I get to the bar and ask for a glass of water, and, while the bartender turns to put ice in my glass, I hear a gruff voice next to me.

“You look like you’re playing your part well.”

I turn and see Jack Hyde leaning on the bar over a glass of scotch. He turns to me and I’m almost a little surprised by his appearance. His eyes are sunken, marred by deep, dark circles, and his hair is greasy. He doesn’t look anything like the charismatic man I worked with over the summer.

“Jack,” I say surprise. “I-uh… how are you?”

“Stuck,” he says. “I’m stuck.”

“Stuck?”

“Don’t play stupid with me, Anastasia. You know exactly what I’m talking about. I seem to recall something about you talking to Grey, putting me up to take over at SIP after you left. But I’m not in charge of SIP. Elizabeth Morgan is. So you lied. You’re a liar.”

He’s clearly already had too much to drink.

“Oh, I’m… I’m sorry about that, Jack. I had no idea that he was already interviewing for my replacement when I told you that. I did talk to him about you. I told him that I thought you’d be great, but he’d already hired Elizabeth.”

“And to think…” he says. “I worked so hard to be kind to you the few months I got to know you. What a waste.”

I’m not sure what exactly it is about those words, but something suddenly has all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. I glance over my shoulder, wondering if anyone is watching us. Luke and Taylor are here somewhere, aren’t they? They weren’t in the limo with us, but surely they’re here.

He’s just drunk, Ana. Stop being paranoid.

“What’s it matter to you though, right?” he continues. “What’s it matter to Grey? You go home each night to your penthouse apartment where you’re waited on by your full time staff. You fly to your Ivy League school in your private jet…” He looks down at the ring on my finger and lets out a disgusted sounding huff through his nose. “Why would you have to worry about us peasants?”

“Jack, I really…”

He cuts me off again. “You know, when I met you, I thought there was really more to you. You’re smart, Ana, you could do something. You could be something. But here you are, clinging to the arm of a man, who only chose you because of the way your tight little ass fits into a pair of jeans, while he throws his dick around a room of finance bigwigs. I don’t even know why you’re wasting your time at that fancy school of yours. Do you think Grey is going to let you do anything with a degree? That he’ll care at all about you having a career after you graduate or doing anything but waiting at home for him ready to spread your legs? You’re going to end up just like every other woman in this room, telling yourself that running your husband’s foundation is enough for you, trying desperately to look twenty when you’re thirty five, and hiding a secret affair with your personal trainer.  He’s going to keep you like a doll, own you, control you, make your life decisions for you, and then throw you away when he’s done playing with you.”

I stare back at him blankly, reminding myself that the man telling me these things isn’t Christian’s biggest fan right now, that he doesn’t have anything invested in either of our happiness, and that, after being passed over for the promotion last fall, he probably has personal satisfaction to gain from Christian’s suffering, from my suffering. But all of that would be a lot easier to swallow if his words didn’t ring so true to everything I’ve been through with Christian this afternoon. And then, there’s the all too clear memory of sitting against a bar, throwing back tequila shots, and pulling a confession out of Elena Lincoln.

You’re ambitious, you’re well educated, you have potential… Christian will slowly take all of that away from you until you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.

“Excuse me,” Jack says, picking up his tumbler. “Enjoy your evening, Anastasia.”

I take a breath, trying to shake off the uncomfortable shiver his whisper has left in my skin, then pick up the glass of ice water the bartender left for me and turn make my way back to Christian. I only make it a few steps away though when I practically run into him.

“There you are,” he says. “What took you so long?”

My head is spinning, still working through the visions Jack’s warning has flashing through my mind, so I look up at him with pleading eyes. “What does the future look like, Christian?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, when I graduate, and move back here, and we’re married… how do you imagine our life will be?”

“Happy?” he says, though his tone suggests he isn’t clear exactly what I’m asking him.

“So, if I publish my book and I go on a book tour, or I get a job with a publishing company and work full time, travel even, how would you feel about that?”

“Proud of you.”

“Even if my career sometimes has to come before yours? Even if you need me here but I can’t be?”  

“Ana, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to be like these other women,” I tell him. “I don’t want the kind of life Gia wants. I don’t want to just be your wife, I don’t want to just be a mom, and I don’t want to throw away everything worked for because our entire lives only revolve around you and GEH.”

“Okay, so don’t. If you want to write books or work in publishing or start mega conglomerate that’ll one day put me out of business, I’ll be your biggest supporter. I’ll always be your biggest supporter.”

I stare up into his eyes, looking for any sign of insincerity, but there’s nothing. Only confusion and maybe a little concern for my sanity.

“I want to believe you, Christian. I want to believe that you’re different than all of these other men and that you don’t just want me as a trophy wife to parade around events like this, but when you spend all day arguing with me about my name, and when you make decisions like publically announcing our engagement without even talking to me first, it’s hard to not to believe that’s going to be true.”

He hangs his head, takes a deep breath, and then nods.

“I’m sorry. I know that I’ve been unfair to you today, but.. I can’t help it. The truth is that I’m having more trouble with today than I thought I would. New Year’s hasn’t been great for me the past couple years. I associate it with losing you, with how it felt being without you. That pain has been very real again for me all day, like I’m experiencing it all over again. I’ve been trying to prepare for how today was going to make me feel, that’s why I made sure our engagement was announced today, but it wasn’t enough. All those feelings I had thinking about you in Cambridge without me, drinking, meeting someone else, moving on… it’s just all very real today and that’s why I yelled at you for not wearing your ring. That’s why I’ve been fighting with you about your name. I want you to have my name, Anastasia. I want the world to know that you’re mine and I want to know without a doubt that you and I are forever. That’s what that means to me. And, I want my daughter to have my name, our name. I want to be a real family.”

“We will be, Christian. No matter what my last name is. We’re family now, aren’t we?”

He frowns and looks down, but nods, and the residual sadness I can see in his eyes tugs at my heart.

“If it means this much to you, I’ll change my name,” I tell him.

“You will?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s just a name. Believe it or not, I know what it’s like to want everyone to know you belong to me, too. In fact, I kind of wish it was tradition for men to wear engagement rings too so that some people would get that you’re spoken for. Besides, if I take Grey then I’ll save our children’s struggle of having to write out Steele-Grey every time they have to write their names.”

“Coming from a Trevelyan-Grey,” he says with a smirk, “they’ll thank you for that one day.”

I smile and then push myself into him, inhaling his familiar, comforting scent as I get to really hold onto him for the first time all day.

“You ready to go rejoin the party?” he asks. “I promise, we’re almost done with the business talk.”

“With you Mr. Grey, always.”

The rest of the ball goes off without a hitch, and, as we approach midnight, more and more people pack themselves onto the center dance floor so they can be in the thick of it when the countdown begins and the confetti cannons cover everyone in glitter. Christian holds me tight against him as we dance together to an acoustic cover of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. I tilt my head back and stare up into his eyes, smiling broadly at the sheer force of love I see reflecting back at me, until Elliot reaches out and nudges Christian’s arm.

“Is that Mom?” he asks, his voice panicked. Christian and I both turn and see Grace standing on the edge of the dance floor in a long, deep purple gown, her eyes searching diligently through the crowd.

My heart stops.

Carrick should be having surgery right now, there’s no way she would leave him at the hospital while he was being operated on. If she’s here…

Christian grabs tightly to my hand and pulls me through the people dancing around us, Elliot and Gia both following closely in our wake.

“Mom?” Christian asks when we reach her. “What are you doing here?”

“This is your first hosting event,” Grace replies, her voice quivering slightly. “I couldn’t miss it.”

“Where’s Dad?” Elliot asks. “How did his surgery go?”

She swallows and presses her lips together for a moment to pull herself together before she speaks. “There was no surgery. When they removed the liver from the patient in Portland, they found a mass that the scans didn’t reveal. The organ isn’t viable. Your father has been put back on the transplant list.”

“But… but there isn’t time,” Elliot argues. Grace gives him a sad, tight lipped smile and steps towards him, holding her arms out to hug him, but before her hands even touch his shoulders, he pushes her away.

“No. No, there’s got to be something else,” he argues. “It’s New Year’s. Maybe a drunk driver or…” His hands start shaking as he takes a step back, like the energy swirling between all of us is what’s keeping his father from receiving an organ and if he can just get away from it, a miracle will happen. Christian turns to him, looking as though he’s going to attempt to offer some kind of comfort, but before he can say anything, Gia steps in front of him.

“Elliot, it’s going to be okay.”

“Don’t,” he says quickly, but she wraps her arms around him.

“I’m going to get tested,” she says. “I’m not arguing with you about this anymore, we don’t have the time. Tomorrow morning, I’m going down to the hospital and I’m getting tested to see if I’m a match.”

He stares at her for a long moment, searching her eyes with his and shaking his head with disbelief. “Why?” he asks. “Why would you do that?”

“Because if your father doesn’t get this transplant, it’s going to ruin you and I can’t let that happen. I can’t stand to see you going through this a moment longer because… because, I love you, Elliot.”

“What?”

“I love you. I’m in love with you and if I can do this for you, for your family, nothing will stop me.”

He looks tortured as he holds her gaze and the silence is so poignant it’s like we can hear it over the thumping music blaring from the DJs speakers. Eventually though, he takes a deep breath, moves his hand up her arms and says, “I love you, too.”

“You love her?”

We all turn and find Kate standing just behind us. Her platinum hair is held back in an intricate braid that leaves the hair around her face loose like a shining halo. She’s dressed in an elaborately beaded golden gown, which hugs her curvaceous figure flawlessly all the way to her knees until the fabric of the skirt fans out into a soft pool all around her. Her makeup is flawless, her skin is glowing, even her nails are perfectly painted. She looks unbelievably beautiful, except that she also looks heartbroken.

She glances between all of us, but no one says anything. There’s nothing to say. So, as the DJ announces the final minute of 2010, Kate gathers her skirts, turns on her heels, and sprints for the exit.

“Kate!” Elliot calls, the same tortured look that had been in Kate’s eyes now mirrored in his. I shoot him a disgusted look and then chase after her, pushing slightly to try and catch up to her through the crowd packing tighter and tighter around me.

When I make it out of the main ballroom and back into the entrance hall, I don’t see her and my mind immediately starts racing through the possibilities of where she’s gone.

Home. She has to be going home, right?

I decide it’s my best bet, so I turn back for the ballroom, back to Christian, as the crowd begins counting down the last ten seconds of the year.

“She’s gone,” I say the second I get to him. “I’m going after her.”

“Where?”

“Mercer Island. I’m going to try her house.”

He nods and I turn to carve my way through the crowd again, but his hand reaches out for my arm and pulls me back to him.

3, 2, 1! Happy New Year!

The hoard of people around us erupt into cheers and applause and Christian’s lips come down on mine. I pause for a half a second and then wrap my arms around his neck and open my mouth for him. His tongue caresses mine softly, contrasting with the way his hands hold me tightly against his body. The entire world seems to stop and for just one, split second, everything is okay.

“Go get her,” he whispers, a little mournfully, against my lips.

“I love you,” I tell him, and then turn to hurry for the main doors, ignoring the smug look of victory Gia wears on her face as I go.

The fifteen minute drive from Seattle to Mercer Island feels like an eternity. As the cab I’m in rolls steadily over the I-90 bridge, I dial Kate’s number several times but continually get her voicemail. Knowing what she’s probably feeling, playing the memories I have of her from last fall when she first felt this devastation before she numbed it with alcohol and partying, has me tied up in knots. The regrets about leaving Elliot that she confessed to me yesterday run through my mind on a continuous loop. I’ve left the man I love before, I’ve felt the agony of that decision, but I’ve gotten him back. I’ve walked through fire to bring him back from hell but even though the things I’ve gone through with Christian have made us stronger together, I think they’ve also made me naive. I realize now that I’ve been assuming that Kate and Elliot were going to find their way back to one another eventually. Maybe not for a while, but, someday, they would be together. That’s how it feels it’s supposed to be, the way I’m supposed to be with Christian, but just because Christian and I could repair what had once been shattered, doesn’t mean that everyone gets their fairy tale ending.

It’s Ethan who opens the door when I finally make it to Kate’s house and, even though he and I have always gotten along well and even though I haven’t seen him in years, there is no moment of reunion between us. He immediately steps to the side to let me in and nods to the stairs.

“She’s in her room,” he says quickly, and I give him a grateful nod before making the climb to the second level of the Kavanagh’s home. Kate’s mother is standing outside of her bedroom, speaking softly through the door. When she sees me, a look of relief crosses her face. She steps aside and, without knocking, I step inside.

“Katie?”

She’s sprawled across her bed, her gorgeous gown fanning all around her as she sobs into her pillows, and I have the brief thought that the scene before me would make a beautiful photograph if my best friend’s pain wasn’t so tangible that I could feel it the moment I crossed the threshold.

I close the door behind me and make my way to her bed, sitting next to her gently brushing my fingertips over her skin as I whisper to her reassuringly. It takes a while, but eventually, her tears stop long enough for her to form her anguish into words.

“It’s over. It’s really over.”

“No, Kate…”

“He said he loved her, Ana. He’s in love with someone else.”

I swallow. “She’d just offered to donate an organ to save his dying father’s life.”

“That sounds an awful lot like love to me.”

“It’s not though. She’ll say and do whatever she can to…”

“Ana, stop!” Kate yells. She sits up off the bed, the intensity now blazing in her eyes exaggerated by the streaks of tears staining her cheeks. “This isn’t about her, this is about him. I heard him say I love you. So either he loves her, or he’s the kind of guy who would says those words to a girl to get her to do what he wants. Either way, it’s over, Ana. Elliot and I are over.”

The finality of her words weighs down on me, leaving me speechless. She’s made his confession into a kind of catch-22 that neither of them can work through. She’s letting go. She’s giving up. She’s decided not to fight anymore.

“What can I do, Kate?” I ask. “What do you need?”

“I need you to go,” she whispers. “I need to be alone so that I can cry and feel what I need to feel before I can move on. I’ve been running away from it, but I can’t anymore. I have to accept that it’s over. I just need some time to myself.”

“You don’t have to do this alone, Katie…”

“Please, Ana. just go.

I swallow and then nod, but as I get up from the bed and turn for the door, she calls out to stop me.

“Ana.” I face her, a frisson of hope rising in me, and then quickly deflating when I see the tears welling in her eyes once more. “Don’t ever let Christian go.”

“Kate,” I try again, pleading with her to open up to me, to let me be with her and support her. To hold her together while, inside, she falls apart. But she just turns back around, buries her face in her pillow, and cries again.

“Is she okay?” Kate’s mom asks worriedly when I step back out into the hallway.

“I don’t know. No, I don’t think she is. But, she’s made her choice.”

“They were so happy,” she says, shaking her head. “I just don’t understand.”

I nod in agreement. “Call me if you think I can help.”

“Thank you, Ana. Thank you for being such a good friend to Katherine.” I hug her and then head back downstairs. I planned on calling another cab but Ethan offers to drive me back home, though I think that’s just so he can grill me for all the answers he can’t get out of Kate right now.

When we pull up along the curb outside of Escala, his knuckles are white from gripping the steering wheel so hard and he’s threatened to go kick Elliot’s ass three different times, but, for what… I’m not really sure.

“Thanks for the ride home,” I say gratefully, and then lean over to give him a hug goodbye before I step out of the car. He waits there until I’ve entered the resident’s code into the security lock on the main doors and, once I’m inside, I turn and wave goodbye, then watch him disappear down the street.

After I’ve gotten in the elevator, I type in the code for the penthouse and then lean my head against the wall as it hums to life. I’m exhausted, drained from the too eventful day, and now that I’m finally home, all I want is to get into bed with Christian. As the elevator starts to slow, I pull out my phone one last time to make sure I don’t have anything from Kate before I unplug for the rest of the night, and my heart sinks when I see that I do have a text. Not from Kate, but from Gia.

Tell Kate how sorry I am that she had to see that. You’re SUCH a good friend to go after her. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Christian gets home okay.

My face heats as the elevator doors roll open, but as I step out into the foyer and find the apartment dark and empty, the angry fire is doused by an unwelcome sense of deja vu.

“Ch..Christian?” I call, my voice shaking slightly, but there’s no answer. I peek inside the security office off the foyer, but it’s empty, and when I move into the great room and see the low glow peaking beneath the door to our bedroom, I feel a hundred needle like pricks of pain all over my scalp.

My mind immediately begins racing through the scene when I left the ball tonight, evaluating Christian’s demeanor. What was his reaction to Gia telling Elliot she loved him? Was he upset or angry? I can’t remember, I was too focused on Kate. He kissed me though, right before I left, he initiated it. He kissed me, but then I said I love you and… did he say it back? I don’t think he did. Fuck, I don’t think he did!

Oh no…

My heart is thundering in my chest as I begin to walk up the hallway and when I reach out for the doorknob, listening hard for any indication of what I may be just about to walk in on, I almost chicken out. It takes me a few deep breaths to summon enough courage to face what’s on the other side of this door, but, once I’ve steeled myself, I reach down for the knob and then slowly push my way in the room.

Christian is in bed, alone, his laptop open in front of him.

“Hey,” he greets me softly. “Did you find her?”

I immediately burst into tears.

“Ana? What’s wrong?” He pulls back the comforter and climbs out of bed, pulling me against him and brushing his fingers soothingly through my hair. “What happened?”

“I thought I was going to find you in here with Gia,” I sob into his chest.

“Gia?” he repeats, sounding confused.

“I had a dream the other night that I came home late and you were in bed with Gia and… and…” My words cut off as I replay my nightmare in my head once again and the tears come more forcefully. Christian tightens his hold on me.

“Baby, shhh. It was just a dream. You know that I’d never do anything like that, I’d never want to do anything like that. You didn’t really think…”

“I don’t like the way you are with her,” I interrupt him, and he pulls me away, forcing me to look up at him as he furrows his brow down at me.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re dieting with her, you’re working out with her, you’re buying her designer gowns, and I don’t like it.”

“Okay, first of all, I’m not dieting with her. Gia lives an extremely healthy lifestyle and I admire that about her. It’s something I strive for, personally, I always have. It’s something we both do, but it’s not something I do with her. And we work out together because it’s the only other thing we have in common and I thought it would be a good way to try and get to know her. My parents haven’t been as open to her as they were with you or Kate and Mia hates her and refuses to have anything to do with her, so Elliot asked me to make an effort, to try and make her feel like she could be apart of this family. After all he’s done for us and how he’s treated you like one of our family since day one, I didn’t have a choice. The gowns, I bought for everyone. You, my mother, and Mia too. I thought it would be a nice gesture because they agreed to come in support of me even though, odds were, they were going to be bored all night.”

I press my lips together. Most of that makes sense from his perspective, except… “You let her touch you,” I say quietly. “You have no idea how hard that was for me in beginning, when you wouldn’t let me touch you. And then you did, you gave that to me, and that meant the world to me. That was what solidified what we had was real, that you trusted me, and that you truly loved me. But you let her touch you.”

“That’s because… I’ve been working on that,” he says, hanging his head now and speaking softly.

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Flynn and I,” he clarifies. “We’ve been working on touch for months. Ever since I found out you were pregnant. All of the baby books say the same thing, physical touch is the most important aspect of parent-infant bonding. Our daughter needs to be able to touch me, without any kind of negative reaction, and I’m trying to prepare myself for that. I don’t seek out physical touch from anyone, only you, but I’m trying to learn how to temper my reaction when other people touch me. I would never be inappropriate with Gia, or anyone, I’m just trying to learn to accept other people’s touch so that I don’t pass my problems onto our children.”

“Oh.” I look down again, feeling slightly ashamed of my accusations now that I hear his reasoning, but he doesn’t let me off the hook that easily. His fingers brush beneath my chin and he tilts my face up so that I’m looking into his eyes again.

“Why are you so worried about Gia? She’s a flirt, I’ll give you that, but a lot of girls our age are. Kate was a flirt, just… not with me because of you.”

“I just don’t like your relationship with her,” I admit. “Even if your intentions are all fine, I don’t like that you’ve gotten so close to her. It makes me uncomfortable, especially when I’m spending most of my time across the country and you’re here alone with her. I know that may sound unreasonable but…”

“Okay,” he cuts me off, and I raise an eyebrow at him.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” he reaffirms. “If it makes you uncomfortable, I’ll back off. I swear to you, Ana, I was just trying to be as welcoming to her as Elliot has been to you, but if you don’t like it, I’ll stop. You’re not being unreasonable.”  

“Really?”

“Of course not. You’re being honest about your feelings, and I appreciate that. You don’t think I understand being uncomfortable with the person you love having close a relationship with someone of the opposite sex? Do I need to fire Luke again?”

I laugh and he leans down to kiss me.

“I love you, Anastasia. Only you.”

“I love you too, Christian. I’m sorry that we didn’t break your shitty New Year’s Eve streak.”

“Well, there’s one thing we could do to salvage it. One New Year’s tradition I’d very much like to revive.”

“And what’s that?”

“Fucking you on every surface available to me.” He reaches down, scoops me into his arms, and I let out of squeal of mixed surprise and anticipation as he carries me off into the great room.

Next Chapter

 

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