Chapter 31

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I wake up the next morning to the low sounds of Champ whining by my bed and when I open my eyes, I see him resting his head on the sheet next to me, staring at me with his sad brown eyes.

“Hey, buddy,” I whisper, my voice still thick with sleep as I reach over to scratch him behind the ears. He whines again. “Are you hungry?”

His ears perk so I slowly pull the comforter off of me and shamble my way from the bedroom to the kitchen. The TV is on, playing the news at a low volume in the great room, and there’s coffee made and a plate of fresh looking croissants resting on the counter, but other than Champ and I, the room is empty. I can hear the dull thump of music coming from upstairs though, so I figure Christian must be working out, and as I pour a cup of dry kibble into Champ’s bowl, I worry that he’s going to wake my father. Yesterday wasn’t a great start to their relationship and I don’t want them starting off on the wrong foot again.

Before I go upstairs to run damage control, I take Champ’s water dish to the sink and, as the steady stream of water begins to pool in the bottom of the plastic blue bowl, my eyes fall upon the latest edition of the Seattle Times resting on the breakfast bar. It’s facing away from me so the text is upside down, but I can read the headline.

 

Manhunt continues for Billionaire Girlfriend’s Kidnapper, New Details Emerge

 

I frown, then turn off the sink and place Champ’s bowl on the floor next to his food, but when I turn around to pick up the paper, it’s gone and Gail is standing on the other side of the bar smiling at me.  

“Good morning, Miss Steele. I’ve just finished your laundry to pack for your departure for this morning. Can I get you anything before I start?”

“What was that?” I ask, ignoring her question and nodding to the now bare countertop, but she furrows her brow.

“What?”

“The newspaper. Was that about me? What new details?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she says, brushing me off. “Just the media throwing stuff out there to sell papers. It must be a slow news cycle. I wouldn’t let it worry you, Miss Steele.”

“Hmm,” I hum, not really falling for her cavalier attitude, but since I’m not particularly  interested in starting my morning by being thrust back into the horrifying memories of last week, I decide not to press her on it. I’m leaving Seattle today. That’s all I want to focus on. “Well, Champ is going to need to go out when he’s finished eating. Can you have Luke or Taylor take him please?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you.” I smile at her and scratch Champ’s fur once more before I hurry out of the kitchen for the stairs. The moment I make it to the hallway on the second landing, I can hear Christian’s music so loudly that I can make out each word to Fort Minor’s Remember the Name before I even turn the corner, and it makes me cringe. Rap music at 6:45 in the morning isn’t the best way to get my dad to warm up to him and his room is right across from our gym.

The door to the guest room is closed so I stop to knock before I walk in, but I worry that he can’t hear my knuckles rap against it because he doesn’t answer. After waiting a few minutes, I slowly push it open, but I find the room empty. The bed is perfectly made, my father’s bags are packed and stacked neatly by the door, there isn’t even a towel draped over the back of a chair from his shower.

Frowning with confusion, I step out of the room, wondering where he could have gone. For a brief moment, I think maybe he’s working out with Christian, and even though I know how unlikely that is, I don’t have any better ideas as to where he could have gone, so I turn around to take a peek inside the gym. Once I open the door, I scan the room and find that my father isn’t here either, but I still have to pause, just to appreciate the view.

Christian is facing away from me, standing before a free standing punching bag in only a pair of sweatpants. His perfectly chiseled back glistens with sweat, his muscles catching the light as he moves, and it makes every one of them look swollen and defined. His perfection is nearly awe inspiring, and as I lean against the door to drink in just how delectable he really looks, the last notes of the song die out and he turns away from the bag, using his teeth to rip apart the velcro on the gloves covering his hands. When he looks over and sees me standing there watching him, he pauses and reaches into the pocket of his sweats for the remote to the iHome sitting on the other side of the room.

“I’m sorry, did I wake you?” he asks, slightly out of breath.

“No, Champ did. I was just looking for my dad. He’s not in his room.”

“No, he asked Sawyer to go for a run with him about an hour ago. I think he’s checking up on me.”

I laugh. “Oh, he definitely is. Next he’ll be running a background check, having you followed to see where you’re going everyday, checking your references to find out all the secrets of your past…” I smile up at him in a teasing way, waiting for his playful side to come out with a perfect biting remark, but it doesn’t. Instead, he frowns and looks down between us.

“I hope not.”

“Hey,” I say, reaching for either side of his beautiful face and tilting it up so that he’s looking at me. “I’m just kidding. Look, I know he was… distant yesterday and you think he doesn’t like you, but you’re wrong.  He’s just my dad and he’s protective of me, and he doesn’t really know you yet. That’s all this is. And if he really is out there questioning Luke, that’s all he’s trying to do. He just wants to make sure you’re good man, and you are. Once he sees that for himself, he’ll warm up. You have nothing to worry about.”

“If you say so,” he says uneasily, but before I can make any more arguments, he leans down to kiss me and even though I know it’s a diversionary tactic, it works flawlessly. I bring my hands up and run them over his arms, which actually are swollen from his work out and even twitch slightly beneath my fingers. The pheromones radiating off of him are intoxicating and as I feel his lips move with mine, my mind begins to swim with fantasies that suddenly have me wondering what it would be like to be fucked over a pummel horse.

“So we’re alone,” I hint. “And you’re looking real fine this morning…”

“Am I?” he asks, and when I nod he groans and he deepens our kiss. I move my hands from his arms and wrap them behind his head, pulling my body closer to him, but just as he slips his tongue past my lips, his phone begins vibrating in his pocket and the low sound of his ringtone plays through the iHome.

“Hold that thought,” he says, placing one last, soft kiss on my lips before twisting out of my arms to answer the call. I pout as I hear him greet Ros and then slump dejectedly against the pummel horse that had given me such intriguing ideas, waiting to see if he’s going to come back. Several minutes pass though, and he doesn’t, so I push off the leather and begin meandering around the gym. Part of me wonders if I should maybe try walking on the treadmill for a while, not running since I’m supposed to be keeping my exercise low impact, but maybe just walking. I run my finger over the textured rubber on the handrest, considering it, until I glance over at the illuminated clock face of the iHome and see that it’s nearly 6:30. Christian said that our flight to Boston leaves at 8:00, so really, I should probably go shower and see if Gail needs my help packing, but as I turn to leave, my eyes fall on the bag that Christian had been punching when I walked in.

I glance back towards the door to make sure he isn’t secretly watching me and then begin circling the bag, considering it, before I eventually square up, pull my fist back, and hit the vinyl as hard as I can.

“Ow,” I whine when I find that the surface of the bag is much harder than I anticipated and the full force is absorbed in my knuckles. I pull my hand away, trying to shake out the pain, and as I do, I hear a low chuckle behind me.

“What do you call that?” Christian asks, amused.

“Painful,” I reply. He laughs again and comes up behind me, pressing his body into mine.

“Well, besides the fact that you should be wearing gloves, your technique is all wrong,” he says. “You should always keep your thumb on the outside of your fingers. If you tuck it inside your fist like that, you’ll break it.” Slowly, he unravels my hand to release my thumb and then uses his hand to curl my fingers into a fist again, tenderly running the pad of his thumb over the back of mine as he moves it into the proper place.

“Now, take half a step back with your dominant leg and angle the other side of your body towards the bag.” His hands slide down my side and over my hips to the top of my thighs and the feel of his hands on my body makes me bite my lip as I move the way he wants me to. “All your power is going to come from your legs. You throw a punch with your whole body. When you throw your arm, you’re going to push off with your back foot and use that momentum to punch through your target. Never aim at what you want to hit, you aim behind it.”

“Okay,” I nod. He takes a step back and I thrust my fist forward, but once I make contact with the bag, I immediately feel the same pain I felt the first time.

“Ow! That still hurt,” I complain, pouting and rubbing my knuckles with my other hand.

“Yeah, you should try hitting someone in the face,” Christian laughs. “It’s not great.” He takes my hand and kisses each of the knuckles before turning to the bag, picking it up, and moving it a few feet to the side.

“Alright,” he begins, squaring up in front of me and raising his hands, palm out. “Try it again. Hit me in the hands, as hard as you can.”

“I don’t want to hurt you…”

“You’re not going to hurt me, Ana. Seriously, hit me as hard as you can. Show me what you’ve got.”

I narrow my eyes at him for a moment, but then move back into the stance he showed me, take a breath, and punch through his hand as hard as I can.

“Ah! Jesus fuck!” Christian hisses. His face contorts with a sudden shock of pain and he immediately yanks his hand away from me.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry,” I gasp. “I didn’t mean to, I’m so sorry, Christian.”

He turns back to face me, smirking, and then laughs. “Just kidding.”

My mouth drops open as I stare back into the superior kind of haughtiness reflected in his eyes, and then mash my lips together in indignation.

“You’re such a dick!” I exclaim, slapping him across his bare chest as he charges back at me. A delighted shriek escapes my lips as he wraps me in his arms and starts tickling me while I struggle to get away.

“Oh my god, Christian! Stop! Ah, stop!” I giggle. I push back on him, thrashing my body to get out of his grip, but his hands are firm and strong against me.

“Stop what? I don’t understand what you want me to stop,” he laughs.

“You are so going to regret this!” I shout. “I’m pregnant, you’re going to make me pee!”

He laughs once more and then his fingers move away from my sides as his arms snake around my middle. His lips move to my neck while he squeezes me and I let out a soft, appreciative moan.

“I love you, Anastasia,” he whispers.

“Mmm, not as much as I love you.” He turns me so that I’m facing him again and then slides his hand beneath my hair, behind my neck, to pull my lips to his. I kiss him hungrily, pushing my tongue past his lips and entwining it around his. My hand slowly creeps down his body, beneath the band of his sweatpants, and just as I hear his soft, satisfied moan responding to my fingers closing around him, there is another sound of a low cough behind me. I turn and see my dad standing awkwardly in the doorway.

“Oh, Dad!” I exclaim, quickly yanking my hand out of Christian’s pants and scrambling a few feet away from him. “Uh… How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” he says. “Just a little bit of jet lag. I was thinking that since you’re leaving this morning, you and I could have breakfast before you go.”

“Sure, do you want me to cook you something?”

“Well, I was going to suggest going out but, since you offered…” He gives me a slightly mischievous smile and I roll my eyes at his lack of subtlety before I turn to look up at Christian.

“Hungry?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve already eaten. You go ahead.”

“What time do we need to leave?”

“Soon. I’m just going to make sure everything is in order at the office, take a shower, and I’m ready to go.”

“Great, we’ll be quick.” I give him a peck on the cheek and then scurry across the room to hook my arm through my dad’s. As we turn to head downstairs, I notice him giving Christian one last examining look before he allows me to tug him from the room.

“So what’ll it be?” I ask when we get to the kitchen. “French toast? Eggs and Bacon? There’s sausage in here, I could heat up some biscuits for biscuits and gravy.”

“Sounds great kid,” he says, and while I turn to the freezer to pull out the dough for the biscuits Gail always bakes for me anytime she makes soup, he takes a seat at the breakfast bar. I busy myself around the kitchen, but once the biscuits are in the oven, the sausage is in the frying pan, and I’ve made a rue for my gravy, I lean on the counter so that we can talk.

“How was your run with Luke?”

“Good.” He nods. “Great, actually. I really like Luke. He’s a good guy.”

“I think so too. Did you grill him about Christian?”

“Would you blame me?”

“No, I expected it. What did he say?”

“A lot. Luke has a lot of opinions about your boyfriend… er, fiancé.”

“All good I hope.”

“Mmm,” he hums, shrugging.

“Bad things?”  

“Mmm,” he says again, but his inflection gives nothing away, so I narrow my eyes at him.

“What did he say?”

“I told him to give it to me straight, he gave it to me straight. He said some things that made me happy to hear, he said some things that have me… concerned.”

“Like what?” I check, and as my mind runs through all of the things in Christian’s past and all of the things that have been difficult about our relationship that Luke could have told him, I feel my stomach clench with nerves.

He shakes his head though, silently telling me he won’t repeat the things Luke said to him in confidence, but when I open my mouth to protest, he holds his hand up to cut me off.

“He told me that you two have had a difficult road and that you’re not without your problems, but at the end of the day, you love him very, very much and he is absolutely devoted to you. He said if there is one thing about Christian that he is sure of, it’s that he loves you, and he would never betray you, or intentionally hurt you. Luke believes that he’ll cherish you the way you deserve to be. I suppose for right now, that’s enough for me.”

I let out a breath of relief. “You should tell Christian that. It would really help break the ice between you, I think.”

“Oh, don’t you worry, Annie. I plan on having a long sit down with Christian once you go back to school.”

“Oh…” I hesitate. “He’s, um… he’s coming with me.”

“He is?”

“Yeah. He really doesn’t want to be apart from me right now with everything that’s happened and my pregnancy so he’s going to work remotely from Cambridge.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Relieved,” I reply immediately. “Ecstatic. Being away from him and traveling back and forth have been the hardest parts about being at school this year.”

“So, it was your idea?”

“No, but only because I didn’t think it was a possibility.”

“I see. Well, just remember, you’re there for school. That’s your most important priority, not him.”

“I know, Dad,” I say, rolling my eyes at his lecturing tone as I turn to pull the biscuits out of the oven.

Once breakfast is ready, we sit down at the breakfast bar together and, again, I’m amazed at how easy it is to fall back into our normal rapport with one another, as if we were never apart. He tells me about some of the amazing places he’s visited and the beautiful landmarks he’s seen, and I’m so engrossed in his stories that eight comes and goes without me ever getting up.

“Ana?” Christian says, stepping out of our bedroom with our suitcases grasped in either of his hands. “We’re late…”

“Oh, shoot!” I exclaim, bolting out of my seat and kissing my father on the cheek before I turn away from the counter. As I sprint into my room, I immediately begin stripping my clothes off so I can get in the shower and then have to scramble to get ready and make sure I have everything I need. Thankfully, even in my scatterbrained rush, I remember to check my drawers for Christian’s Harvard t-shirt because Gail had forgotten to pack it. Once it’s tucked safely in my suitcase, I’m ready to go.

“Ryan will take your father back to Montesano,” Christian tells me once I’ve rejoined them in the great room. “But he wants to see you off at the airport first.”

“Great,” I say smiling. My dad reaches down, taking the handle of my suitcase before Christian can, and then waits for me us to head for the elevator first. As we wait in the foyer for the elevator’s arrival, I see the CNN news story playing on the TV flash over to a view of Seattle and I think I see Christian’s name tick across the bottom of the screen, but when I take a step back to try and read what it’s saying, the doors slide open and Luke quickly whisks me inside.

“Why does everyone keep doing that?” I ask as we begin our descent. “What are they saying about it?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Christian assures me. “I just think it’s better that you have some separation right now.”

“Oh…” I reply, and while my curiosity is peaked over what the media, especially the national media, is saying about what happened and the subsequent investigation, I’m forced to agree with him. I haven’t really thought about what happened much since my dad got here and it’s been an immense relief. I’d like to keep it that way.

When we get to the airport, we find Christian’s jet waiting for us on the tarmac and for the first time since the beginning of the school year, I don’t feel any sense of foreboding. Normally, I hate the flight from Seattle to Boston, but today, I can’t wait for it. Still, when Christian steps out of the car, I linger behind because my dad does.

“Impressive,” he says, leaning over to get a better look at the plane through the side window.

“Even more so on the inside,” I tell him. “Do you want to look around before we go?”

“No,” he shakes his head. “Thank you, but I don’t want to delay you any more than I already have, and I really need to be getting back to Montesano. Now that I’m home, it’s time to start pulling my life back together.”

“Well, come visit me, okay? Any time you want. We can send Christian’s jet for you or we can book you a flight.”

“Just try to keep me away.”

I try to smile, but it’s difficult as I feel the aching sadness growing inside of me as the reality of me leaving and my dad staying behind really hits me. “I hate that you just got here and I’m leaving. We haven’t had enough time yet. It still doesn’t even feel real that you’re here…”

“You’re almost done, baby girl. And then we’re going to have all the time in the world.”

“I love you, Daddy,” I tell him, throwing my arms around him. His hands move gently over my back as he squeezes me.

“I love you too, Ana. Be careful okay? Study hard, have fun, and call me. I’m not going to stop worrying about you just ‘cause I’m home.”

“I will,” I promise. I give him a tight smile and slide out of the car.

There are a lot of people boarding the plane today. While Luke helps Champ up the flight stairs, Taylor, Cardella, and Kommer all hand luggage to the flight crew loading the cargo hold under the plane as they’re all coming back with us and as I watch them, my brain has a hard time working through the logistics of how that’s going to work. We just don’t have room for everyone…

“Ready?” Christian asks, coming up behind me and placing his hand on the small of my back.

“Yeah.” I move forward, but stop when I hear the car door open behind me.

“Ana,” my dad calls. I turn back to him, watching an echo of pain break through his supportive facade for the first time, and it has me immediately flying down the stairs to help him close the distance between us so that he can pull me into his arms. “I’m going to miss you, sweetheart. So much. But I’m really proud of you for going back. I love you, Ana.”

“I love you too, Daddy.”

He places a hard kiss on the top of my head as he lets me go, but when I turn to move up the stairs again, my dad shifts toward Christian and holds out his hand.

“She’s in your hands,” he says. “Take care of her.”

“Yes, sir,” Christian replies, shaking his hand. “I intend to.”

My dad nods and releases Christian’s hand so we can continue up the stairs and into the plane, and before I make my way down the center aisle to my usual seat, I pause and wave goodbye to him one last time.

“Are you alright?” Christian asks once I’ve sat down next to him.

“Yeah, I just wish I had a little more time with him. I didn’t think about the fact that we brought him back here and now he’s just going to go back to an empty house in Montesano where he’s going to be all alone. Maybe I should have stayed a few more days…”

“He wanted you to go, Ana. He’s going to be fine. I was only there for a few days last summer, but I think Montesano is filled with people who will be very glad to welcome him home and make sure that he’s not lonely.”

“I hope so. He’s never been on his own before.”

Christian’s expression tightens and he looks as though he’s searching for the right way to say something, but as the engines of the plane roar to life beneath us, he simply raises our conjoined hands to his lips, kisses the side of my index finger, and then turns to the laptop he’s placed on the tray in front of him.

 

It’s dinner time when we land in Boston, and when we pull up to the house in Cambridge all the lights are on downstairs, which means Kate is home for the night. Champ is sitting upright in the seat next to me, and when we stop, he immediately starts whining and trying to get over me to get out of the car.

“Okay, buddy,” I tell him as I grab ahold of his collar to keep him from bolting the moment I open the door.

“Don’t let him pull you,” Christian says nervously. “The last thing we need is for you to fall out of the car.”

“I’ve got him,” Luke says, opening my door and taking his collar out of my hands. “I’m going to do a quick perimeter sweep, so I’ll take him with me. He could probably use it after being stuck on that plane all day.”

“We all could.” I smile. “Thanks, Luke.”

I wait until he’s guided Champ away from the car before I try and get out and while the rest of the security team moves to the trunk to begin unloading luggage, I take the walk up to the back door and enter the code into the security pad so that I can get inside.

There’s soft classical music coming from the living room, which is what Kate usually listens to when she’s studying, so I hurry through the kitchen to pounce on her, but freeze when I come through the archway and find that she’s already… pouncing on Carter.

“Yeah, just like that, Kate,” Carter groans, gripping onto her hips while she bounces up and down in his lap. “Fuck, baby, you feel so good.”

My eyes slam closed as I quickly turn away, but when I look through the glass in the back door and see the hoard of people about ready to come into the kitchen with no way upstairs except through the living room, I realize I can’t sneak my way out of this awkwardness of the situation.

“Ummm, Kate?” I call uncertainly, and instantly the moaning and heavy panting coming from the room behind me stops.

“Oh my god, Ana!” Kate exclaims, clearly embarrassed. I continue to keep my back turned, giving them a few minutes to get put back together before I chance another glance over my shoulder, but when Christian comes through the back door, he doesn’t understand what my silent, fervent waving means, and he walks right into view before immediately cringing away.

“Oh, Jesus!” he says, also turning to face the same direction I am. “You have a bedroom, Kate.”

“We were studying,” she says defensively. “We thought we’d take a break…”

“Uh huh.”

The muffled sound of clothes moving around and zippers being zipped stops, and after I hear Kate’s footsteps coming across the hardwood floor towards me, I turn around just in time to be swept up in a hug.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Well, you said you wanted your eight weeks,” I reply. “Surprise!”

“What? I thought you said you didn’t think you could come back? What happened?”

“We have a lot to talk about,” I tell her. “Starting with our new roommate.”

“New roommate? More security?”

“Not exactly.” I gesture to Christian with a nod of my head and when she turns to look at him, her brow furrows with confusion.

“Christian? You’re moving in here?”

“I am.”

“But… but what about GEH?

“GEH is going to be fine. Ana needed to be here, and I need to be with Ana.”

She smiles and now that the shock of me seeing her in such a compromising position is wearing off, her face lights up with excitement. “So, you’re really back? Oh my god, you’re back!” She wraps me in her arms again. “Thank god, I hated the idea that you were going to give up so close to the end.” She beams when she releases me and as Carter walks up behind her, he awkwardly holds out his hand for Christian.

“Welcome back, Grey,” he says, but Christian looks down at his outstretched hand and raises an eyebrow at him.

“I have a very good idea where that hand has been so I’m going to have to take a hard pass on that…”

“Oh, right,” he says sheepishly. “Well, uh… we really were just studying so we ordered pizza for dinner. There’s enough though, if you’re hungry. We kind of went overboard.”

“Thanks, I’m starving,” I reply. “We’re just going to go put our bags upstairs and settle in. Be down in a minute?”

“Alright.” Kate nods, and then turns to smile at Christian. “Welcome home, roomie. You and I can sit down later tonight and work out an Ana custody schedule ‘cause she and I have sleepovers once a week so…”

“Awh,” he replies sadly. “I’m sorry you’re going to have to give that up.”

“And I’m sorry you’re going to have to find a way to be comfortable with me sandwiched in the bed between you, because I’m not giving that up for anything. These are my eight weeks, Grey. You’re the intruder now.” He gives her a hard look, and she laughs. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding!”

She takes a step forward and wraps him in a quick hug, but as he hugs her back she peeks over his shoulder at me and mouths, I’m not kidding, forcing me to stifle a giggle.

“I know you think you got away with that,” Christian says, pulling away. “But nothing gets past me, Kavanagh. I have no problem physically removing your from my bed and dumping you out in the hallway.”

“You could try, but I’m pretty scrappy,” she says, raising her arms and flexing her muscles for him, and even Christian laughs.

I give Kate one last hug and then take Christian’s hand to lead him to the stairs, both Taylor and Kommer following after us ladened down with luggage.

“We’ll have the new furniture delivered tomorrow,” Christian tells Taylor once they’ve placed our suitcases on the bed. “For tonight, get yourself a hotel room close by.”

“Yes, sir,” Taylor says, and with a nod to me, he leaves the room.

“Good night, Miss Steele. Mr. Grey,” Kommer says.

“Good night,” I reply, and then he turns to follow after Taylor.

“Are you moving Taylor in here too?” I ask once the door is closed behind them.

“Mmm,” he hums as he moves over to unzip his bag. “The more security in this house, the better.”

“So, they’re going to share a room?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him. He nods.

“The other option was moving into a bigger house and with the little time we have here, that didn’t make a lot of sense. They’re military men, they’ll be fine.”

“Military men? Oh, shit!” I dive for my purse and begin digging through it until I find my phone. I have a missed call from my mom, which I ignore, and then scroll through my contacts until I find my dad’s name, and it actually feels a little strange when I press my finger into the screen, hold my phone up to my ear, and it begins to ring.

Christian spends the first few minutes I talk to my dad unpacking and meandering around the room, until eventually we hear to doorbell ring from downstairs and he kisses me on the forehead before leaving to join Kate and Carter for dinner. I don’t want to push my dad off the phone while he’s telling me about his day greeting neighbors and old friends again back in Montesano though, so I close the door and crawl into the middle of my bed to finish our conversation. But it doesn’t take long before Kate is knocking on my door.

“Pizza’s here,” she says, sticking her head into my room, and I nod.

“That sounds great, dad. I’m glad you got to see everyone. Our dinner just got here, so can I call you tomorrow?”

“Sure, kid. Have a good night. Tell Kate I said hi.”

“I will, love you.”

“I love you, too. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and look up at Kate, who seems to be answering a text on her phone.

“Ready?” I prompt her, but she looks up, steps into the room, and closes the door.

“Christian said your dad’s home,” she says, and I nod.

“Yeah, he got early separation, which means he’s going to be here for graduation.”

“That’s amazing,” she smiles. “I know how important that was for you.” She moves across the room and sits on the bed next to me so she can wrap me in a hug. “I’m so glad you came back. I was really worried about you.”

“Yeah, well… you were right. Being terrified and locking myself away from the world wasn’t helping me, it was helping him, and I’m not going to give him that satisfaction. I’m going to work through this, I’m going to live my life, and I’m going to have everything I’ve worked for. He’s not going to take this from me, he’s not going to take anything from me, he’s not going to make me smaller.”

“Good.” She nods. “I’m proud of you.”

“You know, in a way, I’m almost glad this happened, because it’s opened my eyes. I’ve always thought Christian was over protective but I understand now, and I can move forward knowing that I have to be careful. That I need Luke, or Taylor, or whoever around, all the time, to protect me and my daughter.  Surviving this means that I’m going to be able to protect Calliope better, and I’m glad for that. That’s what I’m going to make myself focus on so I can move forward.”

“Well, I’m glad that you are moving forward” she says. “And I really think that’s it good you decided to come here. School really helped me move on, gave me purpose again, and something to focus on that wasn’t what had happened to me. I hope it does that for you too.”

“That’s the plan.” I smile as she reaches for her phone on the bed, picks it up to answer a text, and then tosses it aside again.

“I need to tell you something,” she says, and the nervousness in her voice makes my brow furrow.

“What?”

“Carter… Carter told me he loves me.”

“What?!”

“We were sitting at the coffee table downstairs, doing homework, and he just looked over at me and he said, I love you.”

“And what did you say?”

“I froze… and then I fucked him on the couch.”

“Wait, this just happened?”

“Yeah. In the time it takes for a pizza to be delivered.”

“Oh my god, Kate. So… you didn’t say it back?”

“No… I-I mean, it’s too soon, right? We’ve only been dating for…” She pauses and her eyes dance back and forth as calculates the time in her head “Oh my god, it’s not too soon.”

“So, do you love him?” I ask. She bites her lip.

“I– I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it. I was just trying to take things slow, not set my expectations too high this time…” Her phone vibrates and she reaches down to pick it up again.

“Who keeps texting you?” I ask.

“Elliot,” she says. “He and Gia are fighting…”

“And he’s texting you about that?” I ask, suspiciously, but when she sets her phone down on the bed, she gives me a returning look that is entirely innocent.

“Yeah, why not? We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I repeat. “You know… he was just saying yesterday that when you come back the two of you might go jet skiing.”

“Might?” She laughs. “There’s no might, Ana. You have no idea how excited I am to get back out on the water. He’s even talking about seeing if Christian will just let him borrow his yacht so we could go out farther and maybe do a two day thing.”

“In separate cabins?”

She rolls her eyes at the insinuation in my tone. “It’s not like that. We’re just friends.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Ana, he’s with Gia now. And, I’m with Carter. We’re just friends.”

“Alright,” I concede. “Then what do you plan to do about Carter?”

“I don’t know,” she groans. “I like him. I really like him.”

“But do you love him?”

She sighs. “I don’t know. I think I have to know what he wants for the future before I can let myself even consider that. We’ve never had any conversations about the future and I’m not going to let myself love someone again who doesn’t want the same things as me.”

“So talk to him about it. If he’s in love with you, he has to be at least considering what a future with you would look like. I think you have every right to know what he want.”

“Hey, dinner’s getting cold,” Christian says, cracking the door open just enough so that we can see him standing in the hallway. “

“We’re coming,” I tell him, but he hesitates in the door for a moment, probably because he doesn’t want to go back downstairs to be alone with Carter again, so Kate sighs, grabs my hand, and drags me towards my bedroom door.

Over dinner, Christian and I listen to Kate and Carter recounting what little of their Cabo trip they spent together before Kate abandoned Carter on the beach to fly to me in Seattle. I try to focus on the positives, that at least Kate seemed to pack a lot into the few days she was able to be on vacation, but I’m distracted from her descriptions of parasailing over turquoise water and wild spring break parties on the beach both by my guilt over being the reason her break was cut short, and by the number of times I see her pick up her phone and smile down at whatever she’s reading on the screen. Even Carter seems to notice after awhile.

“Who is that?” he asks.

“A friend from back home,” she says, quickly putting her phone in her lap and then turning to me. “Before I forget, you got some mail. It’s on the counter over there.”

“For me?” I ask, because now that Christian pays all my bills and my dad is home, I have no idea what would possibly come in the mail for me. Kate nods so I push back my chair and go to the counter where I see three letters addressed to me. The first one I pick up has an official looking logo in the return window for Hamilton House Publishing. I rip open the fold and pull out the heavy weighted paper inside.

 

Dear Miss Anastasia Steele,

We’re writing to inform you that after our second review of your manuscript entitled, Escaping Neverland, we have selected your submission for publication.

Included with this letter, you will find the guidelines for our publishing process as well as our official offer letter, which will require your signature before we move forward with publication.

We at Hamilton House Publishing would like to thank you for your creativity and the skill that has gone into your novel. We are honored to be a part of your publishing journey.

Best wishes,

Genevieve Seegal

Senior Acquisitions Editor, Hamilton House Publishing

 

I have to read the letter twice before the words fully sink in, and as I pull out the contract still in the oversized envelope, my mouth drops open.

“Oh my god,” I whisper in shock and Christian turns around to look at me.

“What?”

“My book…” I tell him. “They want to publish my book.”

“What?” he repeats, but this time there is excitement building in his eyes. “Let me see.”

I hand him the letter and then pick up the other two, which I’m shocked to find are also acceptance letters from Little Brick Stone Publishing and Random House.

“Ana,” Christian breathes as his eyes scan through the letter. “Baby, you’ve done it. Congratulations!” He gets out of his chair and holds his arms out for me. “I knew you’d do it.”

I squeal as he lifts me into the air and spins me once, and then hand him the other letters to read.

“I told you,” Kate says, getting up to hug me. “I told you from day one.”

“You were the one who made me submit it to Dr Ralston in the first place,” I smile at her. “Thank you, Kate.”

“Shut up, it was all you.” She squeezes me, bouncing slightly with excitement.

“Random House,” Christian says behind me. “That’s a top three publishing house…”

“Of course it is,” Kate says. “You don’t get that big without recognizing brilliance.”

“I don’t get it though,” I say. “I was rejected from Random House. And from Hamilton House.”

“Well they’ve reconsidered,” Christian says. “Perhaps your manuscript came across a different editor’s desk and they were able to see how good it really was.”

“Three times?”

“I mean, it’s the press right?” Carter says. “Her name is all over the news because of the kidnapping. They’ve got to know that if they move fast enough, they can cash in on that public interest.”

“Wait, you think this is because I almost got kidnapped?”

“Of course not,” Kate says sharply, slapping Carter across the back of the head. “It’s because someone read your manuscript and saw New York Times Bestseller. You told Ralston to try again, right? To push harder? Well, it looks like he came through.”

I bite down on my lip and Christian’s hand brushes over my arm. “Baby, you’ve earned this. You. Trust me, from a business perspective, it wouldn’t make sense to throw money behind something that’s just a blip in the 24 hour news cycle. If they didn’t think your novel was viable for whatever market they’re trying to target, you wouldn’t have that letter in your hand right now.”

“Really?”

“Really. You ran SIP over the summer and you signed 13 authors. You know I’m right. You did this. Just you, and you should be proud. I am.”

“Christian…” I step towards him and wrap my arms around his neck so that I can kiss him, and the moment my lips touch his, he reaches into my hair, pulling me into him, so that he can kiss me as deeply as possible. His tongue moves into my mouth and when I moan my approval, Kate coughs behind me.

“Not alone yet…”

“Then perhaps we should get that way,” Christian says in a low voice, the suggestion in his tone clear. I bite my lip again, trying to reign in the intrigued smile tugging at the corners of my lips, and turn back to Kate.

“Thanks for dinner,” I tell her.

“Of course. We’ll add Christian into the rotation, it can be his night to cook tomorrow.”

“Mmm, can’t wait,” I say sarcastically, and while she laughs, Christian tugs against my hand.

“Go,” Kate says, rolling her eyes. “But keep it down, we still have some studying to do.”

“No promises,” I tell her, winking, and then turn to follow Christian out of the kitchen and up the stairs. And as he turns to face me, pressing his lips into mine as he backs into my bedroom, I bask in the contentment of this perfect night, and the feeling of true accomplishment and of unbridled happiness.

Next Chapter

 

 

 

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