Trauma is strange.
Just a few days ago I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, surrounded by friends and family who loved me. Today, I’m an island. Not because there aren’t people around me. I’m constantly surrounded by doctors, psychiatrists, police officers, my security team, and Christian, but just because there are people physically in my presence doesn’t mean I’m not alone. They all still have the before. I only have the after.
The most notable difference now is time. It’s no longer measured in hours, only when I’m thinking about it, and when I’m not. I spend most of the daytime feeling like a zombie. I can see and hear everything going on around me but it’s very difficult to find meaning in any of it. Like I’m trapped in a bubble and while the outside world continues to go on beyond the invisible shield, I’m stuck inside as some kind of passive observer. Nights are worse though, because while I feel like I’m sleeping during the day, I’m wide awake at night. I lie in bed shaking, unable to stop myself from replaying what happened over and over again, because my nightmares are no longer sequestered to my dreams. My nightmares are all around me.
I look up and realize that the officer sitting across from me has asked me another question, but I’ve zoned out. Christian squeezes my hand, rubbing his thumb reassuringly across the backs of my fingers, and I try to focus.
“I’m sorry, what?” I breathe back, my voice just as dull and lifeless as it’s been for the past two days.
“Did he make any demands?” the officer, whose name I think is Campbell, asks again. “Did he want you to perform any sexual acts on him? Did he ask for money?”
“No,” I whisper, shaking my head. “No, he just threatened me.”
“What did he say?”
My eyes fall into my lap once more as I hear the harsh voice of the man who attacked me echoing in my ears again.
“He…” I hesitate, losing even more strength to my voice if possible. “He was going to kill me.”
“Did he have a gun?”
“He had a knife. He held it to my throat and…” My voice cuts out as tears prick my eyes and my throat tightens. “He said if I didn’t stop screaming he was going to kill me.”
“Does that explain the wound on your neck?”
I turn and stare at the picture on the wall while the officer starts making notes. I can feel Christian next to me, silently trembling with rage and anguish. This is the third time we’ve tried to have this interview, and I’ve gotten farther today than I have before, so Christian is hearing these details for the first time. It’s difficult sharing my pain with him because I know he feels it as acutely as I do, but I have no way to comfort him. I want to say to say something reassuring. I want to offer him some words of solace, but I don’t have any to give. So, instead, I stare at the wall and wait for the officer to continue.
“Is there anything at all about him that you’d be able to recognize? His hair color? His skin color? His age?”
“He was wearing a ski mask,” I whisper.
“What about his height? His build?”
The memory I have of the man who attacked me flashes across my mind, as quick and as clear as a cut scene in a movie. For a brief second, I can feel his weight on me again, the moisture of his breath on my face. I can hear his voice and it makes my chest tighten with panic until I feel as though I have to gasp to get enough air.
“I think she’s had enough for today,” Christian says. He reaches out for me in the same slow, careful way that he has since I’ve been in the hospital, but before he can help pull me up out of the chair, the officer stops us.
“I’m sorry, Mr Grey. I understand this is difficult but I need her answers to these questions now, while the memories are fresh, if we’re going to have any hope of apprehending the people responsible for this. Everyday, the trail goes colder.” They stare at each other for a moment, I think testing one another, until Officer Campbell eventually turns to look at me. “Take your time, Miss Steele. There’s no rush.”
“I only saw the one who was… touching me. There were two of them, but I couldn’t… I couldn’t focus on the other one.”
“That’s okay, just tell us what you can.”
“He was, I don’t know, about the same height as Christian. Bigger though. Heavier.”
“How tall are you, Mr. Grey?”
Christian’s jaw tenses. “6’2.”
“Okay, and what about the girl? This, Leila Williams?”
“She didn’t try to hurt me,” I tell him. “She was the only one who didn’t try to hurt me. She had a taser and when my dog came back to try and protect me, she used it on the man who was holding me against the wall and helped me escape. She helped me hide. She got me out of there and brought me to the hospital.”
“Did she have a car with her, or did she steal a car?”
“She stole it, I think. I don’t know, I didn’t ask. I just needed to get here.”
“And what did that car look like? What was the make? The model? The year?”
“I don’t know. It was older, probably from the 90s… and it was tan. The inside was tan. All of it was tan.”
“We’ll check reports for a stolen car, see if that will give us a place to start.”
“No… I don’t want to press charges against her. She saved me. If it weren’t for her, I would be…”
“I do,” Christian interrupts.
“Ana,” he cuts me off again, and this time, I can hear the strain in his voice from the patience he’s trying to force. “If she hadn’t been following you all year, keeping tabs on you, learning your vulnerabilities and reporting them back to whoever this fucking psycho is, you would have never been in that situation. She may have gotten you out of it this time, but she’s the reason your life was threatened. She knows who is behind this. I want to press charges.” The furious growl beneath his voice at the end silences me, but as I turn to look down at my hands in my lap, Officer Campbell speaks again.
“Miss Steele, did she give you any indication as to who may have hired her or the men she was with?”
“She said she couldn’t tell me. She said he would kill her. I told her that Christian would protect her…” Christian snorts. “But she said he couldn’t. That we couldn’t even protect ourselves. She said this is… this is just the beginning. They’re going to come after me again.” My voice breaks as tears bubble up through my eyes and spill down over my cheeks. I shake as my breathing rattles in and out of my lungs, and Christian squeezes tightly to my hand again.
“They’re never going to get to you again, Anastasia. I swear to you.”
“We’re going to do everything in our power to keep you safe, Miss Steele,” Officer Campbell agrees, but I know that his words are empty, so I continue to cry.
The interview goes on for hours as I’m forced to repeat every detail I can remember, three or four times. From beginning to end, I tell the story as though I’m there again, observing what’s around me, what’s happening, until I eventually can’t bring myself to speak anymore.
“That’s enough,” Christian says again. “She’s had enough.”
“Of course, Mr. Grey.” Officer Campbell finally agrees. “I think we have enough to move forward from here. We may contact you again, Miss Steele, possibly several times over the next few weeks, while we continue this investigation. But if you think of anything, anything at all, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
“We have your card,” Christian says briskly. He helps me up out of the chair and wraps a protective arm around me as he leads me out of the room. Both Taylor and a hospital security guard are waiting outside the door for us and they walk us back to my room, the room my psychiatrist said he didn’t want me participating in police interviews in so that it could remain a safe place. But it’s not a safe place. Nowhere is.
He, whoever he is, has taken that from me.
I’m in the hospital a total of three days, and I’m actually surprised when the nurse comes into discharge me Thursday morning. I haven’t been sleeping since they brought me here, and it hasn’t gotten any better. The psychiatrist who has had me under observation says it’s PTSD, that it’s common for victims of trauma like mine, but putting a name to the problem doesn’t make me sleep, and without having slept, that nightmarish day feels as though it’s never ended. But the doctor has ruled that I’m not a danger to myself or others, and as long as those aren’t true, they can’t keep me here.
“We could go somewhere,” Christian suggests as he helps me re-pack the bag Gail brought a few days ago. “We could leave the country, stay somewhere in Europe or French Polynesia if you’d rather…”
“And run forever?” I ask, lifelessly, as I hand him a long, thin sweater from the hook on the back of the door. “How do you know he wouldn’t follow us?”
“What do you want?” he asks. “What can I give you, Ana? What can I do?”
I glance up and see the torment reflected in his expression and it tugs at my heart again.
“This wasn’t your fault, Christian.”
“Yeah? Tell that to your mother.”
My stomach clenches as remember the phone call between Christian and my mom the first night I was here. She’d screamed at him for nearly ten minutes, non-stop, blaming him for everything that had happened, telling him that he’d brought nothing but pain and suffering into my life since the day I met him, and that now, if he didn’t let me go, he was going to end of killing me.
“She shouldn’t have said those things to you,” I whisper. “They’re not true.”
“Aren’t they?” he asks.
“No, they’re not.” I try to keep my voice firm, but it’s difficult because I’m still so hoarse. “Christian, this isn’t your fault. You didn’t know…”
“We knew someone was after you.”
“In Cambridge. Seattle was supposed to be safe!”
He shakes his head. “They came after you because of me. They know that you’re the only thing that can hurt me and so they tried to hurt you. Whether it’s my money or something personal, it always comes back to me. You’re a target because of me.”
“You can’t think of it that way.”
“I have no other way to think of it. Fuck, I shouldn’t have gone to work that day. I shouldn’t have left you alone, I shouldn’t have taken the security team to GEH…”
“And I shouldn’t have taken the dog out,” I interrupt him. “Okay, I shouldn’t have gone out by myself, I shouldn’t have chased after Champ when he ran away, I should have had the pepper spray Luke gave me in my hand, I should have had my cell phone, I should have screamed louder, I should have fought harder…”
“Ana,” Christian says, coming around the bed and wrapping me tightly in his arms as I dissolve once again into deep, gut wrenching sobs. “Ana, stop. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Neither did you,” I whisper once I get my breath under control. “So what do we do now? How do we move on from here?”
He swallows and then leans down to place a gentle kiss on top of my hair. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
“He’s there, Christian. Leila said he was there.”
“He’s not. Okay, we’ve searched everything. We’ve changed all the codes, we’ve changed the locks on the service entrance, my team has reviewed all of the security footage from the apartment since Leila went missing before you left school, and we haven’t found anything. You’re safe, and you’re going to be safe, because I’m not going to take anything for granted anymore. I’m not going to make any more assumptions or any more concessions. I will make sure that you’re protected, I promise you.”
“I want Luke,” I tell him. “Not Kommer, not Cardella, Luke. Leila said that the only reason this happened here, this week, was because Luke wasn’t with me. He would have never let me go out like that, he would have been there…”
“I know. Baby, please don’t cry,” he says. “He’s here. Sawyer is at Escala.”
“Okay.” I nod and Christian kisses my hair once more before moving back around the bed, zipping up my bag, and taking it in his hand while reaching for mine. I push myself tightly into his side as we exit the room and this time, it’s not only hospital security waiting for us along with Taylor. Ryan is there and so is Anthony and Cardella, and, as we walk through the halls towards the back entrance of the hospital, they form a tight pack around us.
“Is there press outside?” Christian asks.
“Yes, sir,” Taylor responds.
“Good?” I repeat. “Christian, I don’t want to be photographed…”
“We’ll keep you out of sight, Miss Steele,” Taylor assures me. “But, right now, the press is your friend. They’re witnesses and they draw public attention. No one is going to attack you when you’ve got 30 cameras pointed at you.”
Christian shrugs out of his jacket as we come to the end of the hallway and throws it over my head, then grabs tightly to the arm not in a sling under the jacket and guides me through the doors. The moment I hear them roll open, there’s a deafening cacophony of clicking cameras and the shouts of reporters.
“Miss Steele, would you like to make a statement to whoever it is that did this to you?”
“Mr. Grey, is she alright?
“How’s the baby?”
I close my eyes shut as tightly as I can under the jacket and try to block it all out until I hear the low sound of a car door being opened.
“Step up,” Christian says.
I reach my hands out and feel the edge of the leather seat and look under the jacket so that I can climb into the back of the SUV. Christian slides in behind me, continuing to hold me tightly to his side as though he’s afraid to let me go for a single second, and the moment the security team has piled in with us, the car starts moving.
I’m covered the entire way home so that, even when I get out of the car to get into the elevator at Escala, the reporters standing on the street can’t get any photographs of me from the sidewalk. Once the doors slide closed though and the new code even I don’t know is entered into the keypad, I tug the jacket off and fold it over my good arm.
“Everyone is here,” Christian says while we make the steady rise up to the penthouse. “I told them I didn’t want anyone coming and overwhelming you at the hospital so they all came here. But if you’re not ready to be around them yet, you don’t have to. We’re going to do this at your pace, Ana.”
“Okay.” I nod.
The doors slide open and, as we step onto the marble floor of the foyer, I glance into the great room and see everyone seated around the giant white couch. A hush falls over the room instantly, and while most of our family waits for me to make the first move, staring at me like I’m a cornered animal or something, Luke jumps off the couch and practically charges at me. I can see, just before he wraps both of his thick arms around my head to hug me, that there are tears in his eyes.
“What were you thinking, you stupid, stupid girl?” he roars angrily, despite the fact that his voice is thick and ladened down with tears. “What did I tell you? What did I say to you before I put you on that plane?”
“I’m sorry,” I sob, breaking down with him. “I wasn’t thinking… I thought Seattle was safe. The dog needed to go out but there was no one here and I- I didn’t think. I’m sorry!”
“You scared the shit out of me,” he says, and then, out of nowhere, he lets me go. I look up and he’s rounding on Kommer. “Where the fuck were you?”
Luke grabs ahold of the front of his jacket and throws him into the wall, and while I watch him hold him there by his shirt so he can get right up into his face, the flashbacks start and I begin shaking.
“Stop,” I whisper, but he doesn’t hear me.
“I leave her alone with you for three goddamn days and this happens? What part of your job don’t you fucking understand? You’re lucky I don’t fucking kill you.”
“Stop!” I scream, as the panicked sobbing starts to overwhelm me. “Stop, please!”
Taylor rushes forward to pull Luke off of Kommer and, as Christian pulls me protectively into his chest, he turns an angry glare on Luke.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he demands.
“Uh… I didn’t mean… Ana, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Enough,” Taylor says, sternly. “Now, we’re all a team here which means we all fucked up that day. I don’t want to hear any blame being thrown around because this isn’t on any one of us, it’s on all of us, and it isn’t going to do any good. It happened, it’s over, now we’re going to make sure it never happens again.”
“Yes, sir,” Luke says bitterly.
“Come on, let’s get you into bed,” Christian says, shooting one last dark look at Luke as he guides me out of the foyer and into the great room. Everyone stands as I approach the couch, even Carrick, who looks like these past few days may have set him back some.
“We appreciate all of you coming,” Christian says. “But I think this might be a little bit too much for Ana right now. She needs some sleep.”
“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Grace says. “We just wanted you to know that we love you and that we’re here for you. For anything you need.”
“Thank you, Grace,” I whisper. Christian turns to lead me back to the bedroom, but as I look away from Grace, I realize, for the first time, that Kate is sitting on the end of the couch. Why is she not in Cabo?
“Hey, Ana,” she says softly, dashing tears out of her eyes as she gets to her feet. “I came as soon as I got that Google Alert. I didn’t know… I-I… Can I hug you?”
I nod quickly as tears begin leaking over my lower lids and she closes the space between us to pull me into her. She’s the only other person in this room who knows what this feels like, who knows exactly what I’m going through, and to see the pain on her face and to feel her tears dampening my hair is somehow both validating and making everything that happened so much more real, and so much worse.
“I’m so sorry, Ana,” she cries. “I should have put Champ in boarding for the week.”
“No. If it didn’t happen like this, it would have happened another way and Champ saved my life, so… I’m glad he was there. You should be proud, Kate. You’ve got a real attack dog on your hands.”
She breathes out a small, broken laugh, and then pulls back so she can look at my face. “Look at you, making jokes. You’re so strong, Ana. I love you so much and I’m here for you, okay? Whatever you need. Just like you were there for me.”
“If I remember correctly, that involved a lot of you and Ana sharing a bed and not a lot of Ana and I sharing a bed,” Christian interjects, and Kate laughs again.
“Just like it should be,” she says, and she wraps her arms around me again.
“Okay,” Christian says. “Come on, I don’t want you up and around so much. Your blood pressure isn’t going down, remember? You need to be resting.”
I nod and hug Kate one last time before turning to offer a grateful smile to the rest of Christian’s family. Mia also has tears in her eyes, but she manages to smile as I walk away, and it’s then that I realize that Elliot isn’t here. I glance around the room, but don’t see him anywhere, and for Elliot… that feels really strange.
“Where’s your brother?” I ask Christian as he pulls the comforter back for me to climb into bed.
“I told him not to come.”
“Because he would have brought Gia and I thought it would be better if she wasn’t one of the first faces you saw when you got home. I only wanted you surrounded by people who really love you right now.”
“Oh… was he upset that you didn’t want him here?”
“Not really. Apparently Gia is being really melodramatic about this whole thing, worrying if they need their own security now, and Elliot honestly didn’t want to bring any of that in here either. He’s gone through this before with Kate so he understands what you really need right now.”
“What about you?” I ask. “Elliot’s always been such a rock for you. Don’t you need him?”
“I’m fine, Ana. Please, don’t worry about me.”
“I’m not. I mean, I am. I’m not saying that what you’re doing isn’t helpful or that I don’t need you to lean on, but… I just keep thinking about what those few hours must have been like for you. The not knowing…” I swallow back the tears that seem never ending as Christian climbs into the bed next to me. “It would have killed me if it had been you out there.”
“Come here,” he whispers, pulling me into him. I scoot across the sheets and allow him to fold his arms around me while I rest my head against his chest. He holds me there, just holds me, and for really the first time since this happened, I feel like I could sleep. In fact, I’m just about to when Christian’s voice pulls me back into consciousness.
“It was the worst three hours of my life,” he says, so softly his voice is like an echo. “From the second I answered Ros’s phone call until I got the call from the hospital, it was worst three hours of my life. I thought I was never going to see you again. I thought you were dead. I kept replaying that morning in my head over and over again. How I didn’t even really say goodbye to you before I went to work because I didn’t want to wake you. I just brushed your hair out of your face, kissed your lips as softly as I could, and then I left. That would have been our last kiss. Of all the kisses that I can remember so clearly that I can still feel them, that would have been our last kiss and you weren’t even awake. I had no idea when I left that morning that that could have been the last time I ever saw you.”
I look up when I hear his voice break and I see a single tear roll down over his cheek. It takes me by surprise because, for as long as I’ve known Christian, for everything we’ve ever been through together, I’ve never seen him cry. Not when he first confessed to his father about his relationship with Elena, not when I left him after we got back from New York, not after he’d finally admitted that he’d been abused, not even when we were certain he was going to go to prison for Elena’s crimes. Never. My throat constricts as I reach up to wipe away the bead of moisture, and Christian swallows so that he can continue.
“I think the worst part was everything that’s happened over the past few months. The time with you that I’ve sacrificed working as many hours as I did, the dates that I wanted to celebrate with you and didn’t… On October 21st you and I had officially been dating one day longer than we did before you broke up with me the first time. I wanted to give you something or do something for you, even just kiss you as deeply as I could and tell you how much I love you, but you were in Cambridge and I didn’t think it was the kind of milestone you’d want to celebrate, so I didn’t do anything. I let that moment go. Even this weekend we were fighting, or… not fighting, but we weren’t connected the way we are when we’re at our best. When I imagined you, scared and hurt, knowing that this was the end, I was terrified that maybe because I’d been angry with you that you might have had some kind of doubt, in that moment, about how much I really love you. That you were going to go not knowing that you are my entire world.”
“No,” I say with hitched breath. “That thought never crossed my mind. Not even for a second.”
“I love you,” he says again. “I love you more than I can tell you. You are absolutely everything that has meaning in my life and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that a not one more day goes by that you don’t know that.”
I turn so that I can move my body up and reach Christian’s lips with mine, ignoring the ache in my badly bruised elbow as I open my mouth to him. His hand moves up to the side of my face and gently caresses the side of my cheek before slipping into my hair and pulling me tighter into him. His tongue is needy against mine so I kiss him with all the hunger and fervor I can manage in the dissociative state that’s been my life for the past three days, and when we finally break apart, we’re both left panting for air.
“I know how much you love me, Christian,” I whisper against his lips. “Because I feel that same, consuming love for you. I would never forget that.”
“I’m going to help you heal, Ana, I promise. I’m going to find a way to make this easier for you. And I don’t care how many times they tell me it can’t be done, I’m going to find away to give you what I think you need most right now…”
“What are you talking about?” I ask, but he simply kisses me again, not deeply this time, just a series of small, soft pecks against my lips, before he shifts me back into his side.
“Sleep, baby,” he says quietly. “You need to sleep.”
The first full day I’m back home doesn’t go very well. I’m in and out of sleep all day, tormented by nightmares that make me relive it all over and over again. It seems like every time I fall asleep, I’ve only just closed my eyes before Christian is leaning over me, shaking me awake while my screams echo through our bedroom. By day two, it’s gotten so bad that he has a doctor come to the apartment to try to give me something to help me sleep. But, between my pregnancy and the complications with my blood pressure that I’m already experiencing, the best he can do is give me 3 milligrams of melatonin, which makes me tired but doesn’t do anything to help with dreamless sleep.
When Sunday finally rolls around, I feel despondent. I lie in the bed that I haven’t left for more than the time it takes to shower or go to the bathroom in three days, drifting in and out of sleep as I run my fingers through Champ’s fur. He came home from the vet yesterday and has been resting with me ever since. He’s healing too, and surprisingly, or unsurprisingly really, Christian doesn’t care at all that the dog wants to lay in the bed with me. In fact, every time he’s come in here to check on me, he takes a second to scratch Champ behind the ears and tell him what a good boy he is.
The dreams start again sometime in the late afternoon, but my brain protectively pulls me out of them before they go too far. I start awake and look around the room with confusion for a moment until I hear the low sound of Christian’s voice coming from the great room.
“She sleeps for a while but she wakes up screaming every time. I’m starting to really worry. She’s pregnant and she can’t sleep, she hardly eats, she hasn’t been out to run, not that I would let her, but..it’s like she’s fading away and I don’t know what to do to make this better for her. I thought I did, I’m trying to get her something that, I’m hoping, is going to at least bring some light back in her eyes, but I’m having more difficulty that I thought and I’m afraid she’s going to waste away before I can make it happen. I don’t know what to do.”
“There’s nothing you really can do,” Elliot’s voice responds. “She’s been through some shit that she’s got to find a way to work through and that takes time. You just have to give her time. Be there for her, let her talk to you, make sure she feels safe, and don’t give up on her. No matter how long it takes.”
“Of course not,” Christian says. “But it’d be a lot easier if I felt like some kind of fucking progress was being made to catch this motherfucker.”
“The police haven’t found anything?”
“No. Leila’s car was found abandoned with no indication where she went, they didn’t pull anything off of Ana’s clothes, and there was so much blood on the dog that all the samples they pulled off him were useless.”
“It’s only been a few days, though. Something could come up. Maybe someone saw something.”
“Maybe. God, I just can’t stand seeing her like this.”
“I know. It’s hard. And it’s going to be hard. Is she… is she going back to school?”
“I don’t know. She hasn’t said anything about it and… I hope she doesn’t. I hope she decides not to go, to stay here with me, because I don’t think I could let her go right now. The very idea of her being out my reach is unbearable. No. No, I can’t let her go.”
“Is that your decision to make?” Elliot asks. “She might feel better if she gets out of the city. I mean, even you said that that girl that saved her told her she’d be safer in Cambridge.”
“You don’t think I can keep her safe? You don’t think I can protect her?” His voice is angry now.
“That’s not what I said,” Elliot says conciliatory, pausing for a moment before he continues. “You okay, Christian? You can talk to me you know.”
“I’m just… I’m so fucking angry. Someone out there tried to take her from me, Elliot. Actually take her from me. Forever. Someone tried to hurt my girl, and now she’s so terrified she can’t even sleep. I keep thinking about him out there, planning this, watching her like some kind of fucking peeping tom, stalking her, and then somehow convincing this group of thugs that he has at his disposal to put aside their humanity enough to grab a pregnant woman off the street, harm her, and threaten to murder her and her child. Every time I think about it, it makes me murderously angry. I could kill him, Elliot. I want to kill him.”
“I know. I know exactly how angry you are. I went through this too, knowing there was someone out there who wanted to do horrible things to the woman I loved, and that anger can’t be quantified. It makes you irrational. It makes you want to do stupid things and none of that is going to help her. So I’m going to say the same thing to you that you said to me.”
“Yeah? What was that?”
“That this is the time when you have to put your shit aside and really step up and be a man. You don’t get to sit here and be angry, you don’t get to go out and do something reckless to try and get revenge, because she is all that matters right now and she needs you. You have to let her dump everything onto you and just be whatever she needs you to be, carry it for her as much as you can. You have to be the strong one and if it’s too much, you come to me. You can complain to me, you can scream at me, hell we can put on some pads and you can throw punches at me, whatever you need, but when it comes to her, you never let her see you struggle because this is not about you. This isn’t about what you’re going through. This is going to be worse for her than it was with Kate because when that psycho came after her that night with the gun, Kate wasn’t alone. She didn’t see what happened, she didn’t have to fight to get away from him, and when that night was over, it was over. Ana was alone, and Ana did have to fight. Whoever this fucker is is still out there and she’s gotta be terrified. You have to make her feel safe now. Especially because she’s gonna have a baby to take care of in a couple months and she needs to be strong enough to do that.”
“I know. And I want to carry anything I can for her. I wish I could take it all. I’m not going to fail her like this ever again. I’m going to keep her safe. I’m going to heal her. And I’m going to find out who he is and when I do, I’m not going to fuck with police or my security team, I’m going to hunt him down myself and beat him to fucking death.”
“And I’ll hold him down for you.”
“So, how’s work going? How are you dealing with all of that and being here? You haven’t been able to stop working for months but Mom says you haven’t left the apartment since Ana got home.”
“I’m not doing anything,” Christian says. “Ros is back.”
“Ros? Really? How’d you manage that?”
“It wasn’t hard, it’s what she wanted. But I’ll tell you this, I don’t think I’ve ever gravelled to anyone the way I did to Ros that first night Ana was in the hospital.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just felt so stupid, being played like that. That’s what Elena used to do, like with that photograph she took of Harrington and Ana back in our freshman year. It’s like this fucker knows each and every one of our vulnerabilities, and exactly how to exploit them. Ros has never done anything to make me distrust her and the second my trust was tested, I turned on her. And when she was gone, and everything was up to me, I saw how much she really does for me. How much of my life and happiness is subsidized by her willingness to give up her time and to work for this company like she owns it. So, I begged for forgiveness for a while, and then I gave her a new title, a higher salary, and called the lawyers to start dividing up assets so that I can gift her a 25% ownership stake in the company.”
“Wait, you’re gifting her part of GEH?”
“Yeah. I’d originally proposed 80/20 but she negotiated to a quarter stake. She’s good.”
“Wow,” Elliot says. “What about Welch? Is he coming back too?”
“Welch is more difficult,” Christian admits. “We made an offer and he rejected it. Apparently he has some bad feelings about what happened and he’s got a new job now. Ros is counter offering, hoping she can draw him back with more money, but I’m going to call him personally later. I think I know what he really wants.”
“And what’s that?”
“Wait… what?” Elliot exclaims. “Christian, you can’t give him that! Your technology division is the most profitable part of your company. You depend on those…”
“Obviously, not exclusive rights,” Christian interrupts him irritably. “But a clause in his contract stating that he will be adequately compensated for anything he develops under the GEH brand if he ever chooses to terminate his employment.”
“Wow, that’s… generous.”
“I need him. I think that’s what this whole thing has taught me, Elliot. I can’t do this on my own anymore. I can’t be an island. I need people around me, people I can trust and people I can depend on.”
There’s a pause.
“You have no idea long I’ve wanted to hear you say that,” Elliot says, and I can hear his smile in his voice. There’s a muffled clapping sound, which could be either a handshake or a hug, followed by the muted ping of the elevator.
Champ growls and I grip his fur with my fingers as my body stiffens and I listen as acutely as I can.
“Hey, Christian,” Kate’s voice says after a long beat of silence. “Oh… Elliot. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here.”
“No,” Elliot responds. “Don’t be sorry, I’m happy to see you. Come here.” She lets out a soft, pleasant sounding, half-laugh and then there’s silence while, I assume, they hug. “How have you been?” Elliot continues. “Are you going back to school?”
“Yeah, I’m on my way to the airport right now, I just wanted to stop in and check on Ana before I go.”
“She’s sleeping,” Christian says. “Don’t wake her.”
What? No. “Kate!” I call, and almost immediately, I hear the sound of her shoes cross the great room and come up the hallway towards the bedroom.
“Ana?” Kate says softly as she pushes open the door, and I prop myself up so that I can talk to her or hug her if I want to. She closes the door behind her and then crosses the room to plop down on the bed next to me and gives me a sad kind of smile.
“How are you doing, babe?”
I shake my head. “Not good. I can’t stop reliving it. Every time I close my eyes, I see that alley. I can still hear his voice, smell his breath…”
“Feel his touch on your skin,” Kate finishes for me and I look up at her in shock. “That never goes away. At least it didn’t for me.”
“How do you do this, Kate? How do you just… go on?”
“You make a choice,” she says. “It gets easier. You’ll never forget but, eventually, you’ll start thinking about it less. At first, you’ll make it a whole hour, then an afternoon, then a day. Sometimes now I go weeks without thinking about it, but I’ll never forget. The choice you have now is about you and your life. You can move on, learn the lessons about never taking a day of your life for granted that sound cliche but end up being true, or you can let the fear have you. But if that’s what you choose, then he wins. Then he did kill you that day, because he’s taken your future from you.”
My face crinkles as I hang my head again, and I feel her arms wrap around me.
“I’m not saying that you’re weak. You’re not, Ana, you’re very, very strong. And I’m not saying you need to put this behind you today. But the sun is going to rise tomorrow. Days are going to pass, the seasons are going to change… In a few short months, you’re going to give birth to my goddaughter. You have so much to look forward to, so much to be grateful for, and so many people who love you. Those are the things that are going to get you through this so don’t forget about them, okay?”
“I won’t,” I promise.
“So… I don’t see a suitcase. Are you, I mean… are you coming back to Cambridge?”
I swallow, take a deep breath, and then slowly shake my head. “I can’t. Christian needs me here. He needs to be close to me right now and see that I’m safe and okay, and he can’t come to Cambridge.”
“But what about school? There’s only eight weeks left, we’re almost done…”
“I know. Maybe I’ll see if I can finish from here, or maybe get a few weeks academic leave and then decide if things have calmed down enough for me to come back. I just can’t leave him right now.”
She looks like she has more to say, but instead she presses her lips together and takes a moment to think about her words carefully before she speaks. “That’s your decision, but I hope you change your mind. I know what Harvard means to you, Ana, and I’d hate to watch you let it slip away from you now that you’re so close.” I frown but don’t respond, and Kate leans over, kisses me on the forehead, then turns to scratch Champ behind the ears.
“I can take him with me if that’s what you want,” she says. “But if you want him here, you can keep him for as long as you need.”
“Thanks, Kate. I want him to stay.”
“Okay. Well, I should go. I don’t want to miss my flight.”
“I’ll walk you out.” I climb out of bed, hook my arm through hers, and walk with her back out through the great room. Christian and Elliot watch us cautiously as we approach, but when Kate stops and smiles at Christian, he gets off the couch to hug her.
“Call me if you need anything,” he tells her.
“Thanks, Christian. I’ll see you soon. Take care of my best friend, okay.”
“Elliot.” Kate turns to him and gives him a wistful kind of smile before she steps forward and squeezes him tightly. “It was really good seeing you. You should… you should call me sometime. We should catch up.”
“I’d really like that,” Elliot says. “Have great time at school, Katie. Knock ‘em dead.”
“You know I will.” She smiles and then reaches back for me to go the rest of the way to the elevator with her. While we wait for the doors to slide open, she hugs me again.
“Call me every day,” she says. “And Skype me whenever you can. We should watch movies together, and Grey’s on Thursdays.”
“I will,” I promise.
She pulls back and wipes away the tear rolling down her cheek as the ping of the elevator’s arrival sounds around us.
“I love you, Annie.”
“I love you too, Katie.”
Her fingers squeeze mine and then slowly drag away. I stand there, staring after her as she steps into the elevator and then disappears, going where I should be going. Leaving me behind.
“Oh, Miss Steele,” Taylor says, looking almost surprised when he comes out of the security office. “I’m sorry, I waited… I was trying not to startle you.”
“That’s fine, Taylor. You didn’t.”
“Good,” he says, and then he nods and heads back into the great room. “Mr. Grey? I have the phone records for Miss Matteo that you requested.”
“Matteo?” Elliot asks. “Gia? You’re checking up on Gia?”
“Leila told Ana that whoever’s doing this has access to Escala, which means they have the elevator code. There are very few people who have that code, Elliot.”
“Okay, so are you checking into my phone records too? Into Mia’s?”
“Do you think it’s likely that Mia is the one coordinating with someone who’s trying to murder my fiancé?”
“About as likely as it is to be Gia,” Elliot snaps back.
“Then she shouldn’t have anything to hide,” Christian says.
“Sir, he’s right…” Taylor interjects. “I went through her phone records, her texts, her email communication, her credit card statements, and her bank accounts. There’s nothing out of the ordinary that suggests she has had contact with anyone who has the kind of capabilities we’re dealing with, unless she has another phone that we aren’t aware of.”
“Does she another phone?” Christian asks, turning to Elliot, and his face immediately turns a fiery red.
“No, she doesn’t,” he says coldly. “She’s not the villain, Christian, no matter how much you want her to be. All she wants is to be received into this family, the way that Kate was, the way that Ana is. Why can’t you accept that?”
“Because someone gave out those codes, Elliot.”
“Well it wasn’t her,” he snaps, and he rips the records out of Taylor’s outstretched hand and stalks to the elevator. Christian sighs, and Taylor lets out a low cough.
“I’ll uh… I’ll get you another copy, sir.”
“Thank you, Taylor,” Christian says. “Any word on…?”
He nods. “In transit. We should expect arrival tomorrow morning sometime.”
“Good. Thank you, Taylor.”
“You’re welcome, sir.” He nods to me and then turns to leave while Christian reaches out for my hand so that he can pull me into him.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
“Like the world is spinning too fast for me to hold on anymore.”
“Then let me slow it down for you.” He leans down and kisses me, slowly, tenderly, so that warmth washes over my entire body. “Are you hungry?” he asks when he pulls away.
“No.” I shake my head.
“I really wish you’d eat. You have to eat, Ana…”
“I’m not hungry,” I repeat. “I’m tired. I’m going to go back to bed.”
“I’ll be in in a minute,” he sighs, and I nod as I worm out of his arms and make my way back to our room.
It’s another mostly sleepless night for me, until the morning starts to creep in through the windows and the shadows of dreams begin to dance across my eyes. For the first time in a long time, I don’t immediately see the entrance to that alley behind my eyelids, so I nestle deeper into my pillow and let sleep have me.
It’s wonderful. Peaceful. There’re no screams, no sharp spikes of pain, or cold whispers in the dark. There’s only warm sunlight shining down on my face, fine white sand curling around my toes, and the gentle rumble of the tide washing in and out.
“There you are,” Christian’s voice says behind me, and I blink through the sunlight until I find him standing over my towel with two cold tropical drinks in his hand.
“My hero,” I reply, taking the blue drink that matches the crystal clear color of the water.
“You look like you’re getting too much sun,” he says. “Let me help you.”
He nestles down on the sand behind me, picks up a bottle of sunscreen, and squeezes a dab into his hand. I watch, fascinated, as he rubs his palms together before he places them on each of my shoulders and begins to massage me.
“Mmm, that feels nice.”
“Good.” His lips press into the slender part of the back of my ear. “I only ever want to make you feel good.” I moan as his lips are quickly replaced by his tongue and he begins tracing a line down my earlobe to my neck. Once he starts to nibble and suck on the sensitive skin there, I place my drink in the sand and turn to kiss him. His lips are warm and his tongue gently teases mine. I move my hands up into his hair and tug gently, making him moan too.
“Oh, Ana,” he says. “Ana. Ana. Ana!”
I wake up with a start, see Christian leaning over me fully dressed, and groan. The light coming through the windows is entirely too bright for the early morning, so I must have been sleeping for a while, but not long enough to feel well rested.
“Wake up, baby,” Christian whispers.
“No,” I groan.
“I have something for you. Something I hope is going to make you feel a little better.”
“Is it a fruity cocktail and a warm beach?” I ask.
“No,” he laughs.
“Then I choose sleep.”
“Trust me, baby. You want to wake up. There’s someone here for you.”
“Someone?” I check.
“Yes, someone. Wait here.”
“It’s not another doctor is it?” I check as he turns to leave the room, but he just shakes his head and disappears through the door. I groan and think maybe I’ll just go back to sleep anyway, try to salvage the dream Christian ripped away from me, and I almost think that I have when I hear the next voice.
My body freezes. I slowly pry open my heavy eyelids and then feel my mouth pop open with complete and utter shock when I see the man standing in the doorway, still dressed in his army green fatigues.
“Daddy?” I whisper, and he smiles.
“Hey, baby girl.”