Chapter 32

Publishing contract

“So, what exactly has been compromised?” Christian asks, pacing the floor of my bedroom. I stare at him rather than at his t-shirt in my hands, which I’m supposed to be folding, hanging on his each and every word. He pauses for a long time, listening to what Welch is telling him, and the longer he goes on, the tighter the muscles in his face become. Eventually, he closes his eyes, looking as though he may actually be counting to ten to calm himself down before he speaks. “Have we secured those access points? Good. And what have the police found out?”

I turn my eyes back to my basket of laundry as Christian turns back towards me and begins pacing again. When Welch came back on and did a complete system analysis, he found several places in the GEH server where firewalls had been disabled or security measures had been bypassed with code that had not been written by the Technology/R&D department. Thankfully, most of what he found was minor. In the beginning, it looked as though the majority of the access points created in the GEH server were merely put in place to monitor information being put in, kind of like spyware. But then Welch expanded his review outside of the main company server and he found a major breach in the security system, Taylor’s system, and not just what he used at GEH.

From what we can tell, they’ve had access to our home security system for months. They’ve been able to monitor everything we’ve done inside Escala, when we left, when we arrived, when we sat down to have dinner… If there was a camera in view, they’ve had eyes on us. Twenty four hours a day. It’s the kind of thing that couldn’t have been done through a simple VPN on my laptop, they had to have had someone on the inside, someone to install the software undetected. Welch was finally able to crack the security codes on that software two days ago and when he did, he found the credentials of Sam Walker, the man Christian had hired to take over R&D after Welch’s departure, all over it.  He was arrested yesterday morning.

“Great,” Christian says, the anger breaking through in his voice as he replies to whatever Welch has said about the police. “Just… make sure everything you’ve found has been secured and protected, and loop Taylor into anything else you find. If the police aren’t going to take this threat seriously, he will. Thank you, Welch.”

He hangs up the phone and turns back to me, looking as though the entire world is weighing on his shoulders.

“What did he say about the police?” I ask.

“They’re refusing to connect the security breach to your attempted kidnapping so they’re not asking him any questions regarding who could be behind all of this.”

“But this has to be how they’ve been keeping track of us,” I argue. “How they knew that I was out on the street that morning.”

“You know that, I know that, but the police don’t seem to care. I think Leila was right, we can’t trust the police. From here on out, we’re going to have to deal with what we find on our own.”

“And what have we found? Anything?”

Christian frowns. “No. Taylor thinks that whoever it is was shaken badly when he failed to get to you, it looks like it’s the first time something’s gone wrong for him. There hasn’t been anything since that day, nothing for us to follow. He’s just… disappeared.”

“No, he hasn’t,” I reply, shaking my head. “He’s just waiting for us to let our guard down again.”

“But we won’t. I promise you, Ana, I’ll never let him get near you again.” He pulls me into him, holding me tightly against his chest. His lips press into the top of my hair and as I nestle into his shirt and breathe in my favorite smell in the world, I sigh contentedly and he speaks again. “It was a good idea to come back to Cambridge and I’m glad I came with you. You’re different here, more comfortable I think, and I like to see you this way. I’ve very much enjoyed these past few weeks with you.”

I smile into his chest. “Even though we have to vacuum our own floors?”

“Even though we have to vacuum our own floors,” he agrees with a laugh.

He’s right, being back in Cambridge has been really great for us. Away from the pressures of the press and his public image in Seattle, we’ve been afforded a degree of freedom and anonymity we haven’t had since he went to school here. He’s been much more relaxed, more playful, and much more easy going. We’ve had more sex in the past few weeks than we did even last summer when we together all the time, and I’m starting to believe it has something to do with the Cambridge air. We’ve been happy, and it’s helped me make tremendous strides in moving on from what happened.

But there has been a learning curve to our life here. It’s been a long time since Christian has had to live without a full staff, specifically a housekeeper. In fact, I don’t think he ever has, except when he was at Harvard, and even then his meals were prepared for him and he had a his laundry sent out every few days. Kate and I aren’t about that life and now everytime we have to go to the grocery store or do the dishes, it’s like he turns into an alien from a different planet who is learning the ways of Earthlings for the first time.

“Let me help,” he says, turning towards the basket of laundry on the bed, but when he takes out a t-shirt to fold, he ends up twisting it into a crumpled mess and I laugh.

“I’ve got it, babe,” I say, reaching for the shirt, but he holds it out of my reach.

You don’t need to be on your feet all day, especially when we’re just about to leave to have your blood pressure checked. I want to help, just… show me one more time.”

Between the efforts I put into teaching Christian how to fold, and his subsequent obsessive compulsiveness making sure every corner matches up exactly, it takes nearly half an hour to get through the single load in the basket. And when we do, I’ve still done the lion’s share of the work.

“There, done,” he says proudly as he lifts a pair of my leggings up for me to see how meticulously they’ve been folded.

“It’s perfect,” I tell him, picking up the basket to take back down to the laundry room, but once he’s shut the drawer to my dresser, he hurries towards me, grabs onto my waist, and pulls me down on the bed. He nestles himself against my side, because he has to now with my bump protruding out so far, and his lips come down on mine.

“One more time before we go,” he moans.

“We don’t have time,” I protest, though the wanton need laced heavily through my voice, elicited by his tongue, isn’t very convincing.

“But these look so good.” He reaches up and kneads my breasts with his palms. “I love your body like this.”

“Ugh… I don’t, but I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

“Immensely,” he breathes, moving down to push his face into my cleavage and sucking slightly on the swell of my breast peeking through top of my button down blouse.

“Well, take it all in, Grey. You’ve got nine weeks left.”

“Nine weeks,” he repeats, and he takes a long breath as he looks up at me. “She’s almost here. It seems like it’s gone by so fast…”

“No it doesn’t,” I laugh and then, after kissing him quickly on the mouth, I shove against him with my hands. “Come on, let’s go see how she’s doing, shall we?” He groans with disappointment but pivots so I can get up off the bed and as we leave the room and make it to the top of the stairs, his hand grips tightly to my behind.

“Watch it now, Grey,” I say indignantly, but he just gives me an overly satisfied, toothy smile in reply.

“It slipped.”

“Uh huh.” He takes the laundry basket out of my hands since I’m a little unsteady with my center of gravity thrown so far off, and we descend the stairs to find Kate and Carter sitting around the dining room table, eating breakfast.

“There are law schools in Seattle,” she says. “UW’s a good school and you’d look good in Husky purple.”

“From Harvard to state school,” he says dejectedly. “Great.”

Christian moves past them, clearly uninterested in whatever dilemma they’re facing as he pours himself a cup of coffee, but I pause as I pick up my purse from the kitchen counter.

“What’s wrong?”

“He got wait listed for Harvard Law.” Kate says.

“Oh… Well, that’s not a rejection,” I say, trying to be optimistic. “It’s still early, something will probably open up.”

“Yeah, tell that to my father. He already thinks I’ve been wasting all my time here partying, this is just going to validate all of that for him.”

“Well, if you don’t get in this year, maybe you could take a gap year,” Kate suggests. “Get some real world experience and then re-apply.”

“Maybe,” Carter says unsure. He takes a drink of his coffee and then turns to me, clearly looking to change the subject. “Where are you two off to?”  

“I have a doctor’s appointment in the city and then a meeting with the representatives from HarperCollins.”

“HarperCollins?” Kate asks. “Wait, when did you get an offer from HarperCollins?”

“Last week. And they’ve been very insistent. Dr. Ralston says they’ve emailed him every day since I got their letter. Apparently they’ve expedited their whole process to get an offer put together in the same amount of time as the others.”

“And you were worried you weren’t going to get published,” she smiles.  

“Yeah. I thought the waiting for the offers to come in was the stressful part, but now everyone is just throwing numbers at me and expecting me to make hard fast decisions on something that feels really precious and personal, you know? I kind of wish I could just pause for a second.”

“You don’t have to sign anything you don’t want to,” Christian reminds me. “If they’re pressuring you, tell them you need some time and you and I can go over everything tonight.”

“You’re not going with her?” Kate ask, turning to Christian, and he shakes his head.

“This is her deal,” he says. “And she’s perfectly capable of making it on her own.”

“Thank you, baby.” I lean over to kiss him softly, but as I pull away, I see an all too familiar glint appear in Kate’s eyes.

“So, you’re going to have the afternoon, free?” she asks.

“I suppose,” Christian responds. “Why?”

She shrugs but then gives a pointed look to Carter. They have a sort of silent exchange with a series of tense looks until Carter finally takes a deep breath and turns to Christian.

“Uh… if you’re not doing anything, maybe you and I could hang out. I’m not doing anything either and I still have a few friends on the rowing team, so I can get us access to Newell. We could go out on the river. Get a few reps in…”

“You want to row?” Christian asks dubiously, and Carter nods.

“Sure,” he says, but he doesn’t really sound sure. In reality, I know this is all part of Kate’s plan to get Christian and Carter to bond because, while he and I have had a great time being back here in Cambridge and Christian and Kate have grown closer living under the same roof, the same can’t be said for him and Carter. There hasn’t been any issues, Christian has been perfectly cordial, but there’s still a tangible wall of resentment between them and Kate is bound and determined to knock it down.  

“I think it’s a great idea,” I interject. “You were saying just a few months ago you could row circles around the new team. Now’s your chance to prove it.”

“And, it’s a beautiful day,” Kate adds.

Christian looks at us both suspiciously for a moment, but eventually lets out a long breath and nods. “Why not? It’s been awhile since I’ve been out on the water. Reed might actually be able to keep up with me now.”

“Maybe,” Carter says and as Kate launches into her plans for picnic lunches by the river, Luke comes in through the back door with keys in hand.

“Mr. Grey, Taylor and I are ready when you are.”

“Which is now.” He reaches out for me and as we turn to leave the kitchen, he shoots a dubious kind of look back at Carter. “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”

“Can’t wait,” Carter says, and as Kate turns to me, beaming, I shake my head and follow Christian through the back door.

 

Since it’s a Saturday and Dr. Baker is only seeing me today as a special favor because she’s already on call, the waiting room to her office is completely empty and it makes the short wait feel much longer and more awkward. There isn’t even a receptionist sitting at the desk, just me, Christian, and a large empty room filled with Parents magazines and discarded toys scattered amongst the chairs.

“Okay, Ana,” Dr. Baker’s nurse says as she comes through the door from the back. “Come on in.”

I smile at her and take Christian’s hand as we follow her to the examination room. She takes my vitals and records them in the system, then tells me Dr. Baker will be in real soon before leaving Christian and I to wait again.

“What could she possibly be doing?” Christian asks, getting up to pace back and forth across the small room. “We’re the only people here…”

“I think there must be some law about doctors being legally required to make you wait. I’m usually her first patient because I try to get here before I have to go to school most of the time, and it’s always like this.”

He sighs and leans against the counter, impatiently tapping his fingers against the sharp ledge, until Dr. Baker eventually comes through the door.

“Good morning, Anastasia,” she greets me. “How are you feeling today?”

“Tired,” I tell her. “Always tired.”

“Well, being seven months pregnant has been known to do that to a person,” she smiles. “But, we have some good news. Your blood pressure has gone down.”

“It has? Oh my god, that’s great!”

“Yes, it’s still a little elevated, but this is the first time since last November that it hasn’t gone up so we need to figure out what’s changed and make sure you’re doing more of it. Have you started running again?”

I frown. When I first got back to Cambridge, I tried to pick up running with Luke again, but just the few days I stopped during that last week in Seattle was enough to derail me. It was so uncomfortable trying to jog up the street that I simply couldn’t make it through our normal route and after three days of it just getting worse and worse, Christian and I decided it was better to stay at home and rest than push myself too hard. Especially since I was headed into my 3rd trimester.

“No,” I tell her. “Ever since I’ve come back from Seattle, I’ve found that most physical activity just completely wipes me out. I get winded going up the stairs sometimes now. We’ve have a really good few weeks though, very little stress. Maybe that’s the reason?”

“Perhaps, but with finals and graduation coming up for you, I think your environmental stress levels are bound to increase once again. If cardio is becoming too much for you this late in your pregnancy, then it might be a good idea to find something less strenuous. Yoga, maybe? Meditation. Even simply having sex regularly can keep us on the right track.”

“Sex?” Christian repeats, intrigued, and Dr. Baker smiles at him.

“Yes, Mr. Grey. Sex has many practical health benefits. Orgasms help reduce stress levels and have a measurable impact on blood pressure.”

“I see,” he says, with a smile. “Well, if it’s doctor’s orders…”

I roll my eyes. “My roommate did yoga for awhile, I can probably convince her to pick it back up with me.”

“Great,” Dr. Baker says. “Well, let’s take some measurements shall we?”

I nod and lay back so that she can measure my belly and listen to Calliope’s heartbeat. She does a quick check of my wrists and ankles and since my ankles are a little swollen tells me to make sure I’m elevating my feet as much as possible when I’m sitting or even laying down. She asks about how much movement I’ve been feeling and when I tell her I’m nearly convinced that Calliope is going to be a gymnast when she grows up, Dr. Baker laughs and tells me that’s a sign of very good things.

“Alright, I think we’re looking very good,” she says with a smile. “Do you have any questions for me?”

“I just wonder if there’s a point where her exhaustion should become a concern?” Christian asks. “She’s been noticeably more difficult to get out of bed in the morning and she’s tired throughout the day. She’s fallen asleep at the dinner table more than once.”

“That’s normal,” Dr. Baker says. “All I can say to listen to your body, Anastasia. It’s very good at telling you what it needs.”

“Thank you, Dr. Baker.”

“No problem,” She smiles. “I’ll see you in two weeks?”

“Right before finals,” I smile at her.

“Good. Until then, let’s work on keeping your blood pressure down.”

“It’ll be my top priority,” Christian says, trying to hide an implication filled smile and I shake my head with exasperation. Although, if what the doctor told me today is true… our increased sexual activity may be the reason my blood pressure has gone down in the first place. It’s really the only thing that’s changed…

I thank her again and shake her hand before we leave the office, and as we make our way through the deserted hallways to the car where Luke and Taylor are waiting, Christian’s hand skims down my back to grip tightly to my behind.

“Subtle,” I chide him with a smile, and his answering grin is infectious.

“I’m just doing my best to ensure your health and well-being, Anastasia.”

“Yeah, that’s what you’re doing…”

He stops me in the middle of the empty hallway and turns me back to face him. Our eyes meet for a long second, his gaze swimming with a hundred varying degrees of love and adoration until he finally pushes me gently into the wall at my back, brings his hands up to cup my face, and kisses me. I moan at the feel of his insistent but soft lips against mine and rejoice in the heat of his body washing over me as he consumes me. It’s the kind of kiss that would almost make me willing to miss my meeting, to never come up for air even, and as I feel his body press against mine, pinning me between him and the solid wall while his hands hold me firmly in the kiss, I think for a moment that he’s as content to revel in this connection as long as I am. All too soon though, he pulls away.

“I am so in love with you,” he whispers against my lips.

“And I, you,” I breathe back. I tilt my head up again, skimming his lips once more with mine, but he merely leaves me with a gentle, chaste kiss in return before he pulls back to look at me again. When he speaks, his voice is soft, warm, and filled with promise.

“I want to take you home and make love to you for the rest of the afternoon. Slowly. Deeply. Until nothing in the world exists outside of you and me.” He kisses me again. “Do you have to go to this meeting?”

“Yes,” I tell him. “And you’re not getting out of spending the afternoon with Carter.”

His lips, moving down to touch mine again, suddenly stiffen, and when I pull back to smirk at him, he shakes his head and smiles.

“One day, I’ll remember how well you know me.”

“One day, maybe,” I repeat with a laugh, and then I reach down to take his hand. “Come on, Luke and Taylor are waiting and I’m going to be late.”

 

Christian looks nearly solemn when we pull up in front of the house, but I really am running behind, so I can only give him a quick kiss and a few words of encouragement as he climbs out of the car. The pout on his face as Luke pulls away from the curb makes me laugh and for a moment, I’m almost sorry I can’t go sit on the grassy slope next to the river and watch Carter and Christian trying to row a boat together all afternoon.

I really hope neither one of them ends up in the water…

A deep yawn forces it’s way out of my chest when we pull up in front of the unassuming building on the edge of the law school side of campus, so as Luke parks the car and moves around to the back to let me out, I try to shake away the exhaustion quickly clouding my mind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to do much good.

“You okay?” Luke asks, when he opens my door and I reach for his hand to help me out.

“Just tired. You don’t happen to have a five hour energy on you, do you?”

“Sure! I’ll just mix it with this beer I’ve got here and then before we go in, you and I can jump on trampoline. Wake you right up.”

“That doesn’t sound very good for Calliope…”

“You think?” he laughs, and as I join in, I reach back into the car for the files I need for this meeting and then hook my arm through his so we can make our way inside.

My lawyer, Russell Prosser, and Dr. Ralston are already in the room waiting for us when we arrive, along with a woman and two men I don’t know, but who are dressed in impeccable suits.

“Ah, here she is,” Dr. Ralston says, standing and smiling broadly at me as Luke and I enter the room. “The brilliance behind Escaping Neverland, Miss Anastasia Steele.”

“Soon to be, Grey,” one of the men interjects.

“Uh, yes… hello. I’m sorry I’m late,” I apologize, taking the seat next to Dr. Ralston. “This is Luke Sawyer, my bodyguard. I hope you’ll understand the need for him to be here today.”

“Of course, Miss Steele.” the woman now sitting across from me says. “And welcome. We are so impressed with your work at HarperCollins, we really can’t wait to get the ball rolling. Are you ready to begin?”

“Absolutely, please.”

She turns to smile at the man on her left, who gets out of his chair to turn on the laptop that brings up a PowerPoint presentation behind him. There are introductions, then an explanation of the history of their publishing press, which I don’t need because of the stalker like research I’ve done on all the big five publishing houses since I finished my novel, and then a lot of talk about demographics and target audiences. I know the latter is important, and I do my best to focus, but it’s hard to stay engaged when I’m just looking at graph after graph on their presentation and I’m already fighting the third trimester exhaustion. Thankfully, Calliope is awake and very active, so every time I feel my eyelids begin to droop or my mind starts to wander, a get a sharp kick behind my belly button that makes me focus again.

“Now,” one besuited man says as he turns off his PowerPoint presentation, “Our one hurdle is how quickly we need to work to get this on the shelves. Generally, we expect at least a three month turnaround between signature and publication, but I don’t think we have that long. I’d give us six, maybe eight more weeks of public interest before we miss our window.”

“Public interest?” I repeat. “How is there public interest? No one knows about this book except the people in my family.”

“Well…” the woman hesitates. “Because of the kidnapping. Your name is recognizable, you have a national media presence, the public is interested in knowing your story. Frankly, your lack of response to the media allegations has been a brilliant move. Everyone is waiting to hear from you and now, to do that, they’re going to have to buy your book.”

“Media allegations?” I repeat.

“I’m sorry,” Luke interrupts. “But the event Miss Steele experienced last month is under on-going investigation and we have been advised not to discuss any details of what occurred before or after what happened. We need to keep this meeting focused on Miss Steele’s book, please.”

I turn to look at him, examining him closely as he fights to keep his face a stone facade of impassivity, but I can tell he’s hiding something and now, I have a good idea what it is. Christian’s media blackout wasn’t lifted when we moved to Cambridge. We don’t watch the news, we don’t read the papers, and I’ve avoided every mention of what happened online. I’ve even evaded discussions about it on campus thanks to my security team shielding me from everyone who isn’t Kate or Carter. And, I’ve been fine with all of that because the truth is, I like my bubble here, and I’m not interested in listening to vague recounts of what happened to me or how they’ve been embellished to sell magazines or news stories. I don’t want to hear what the media’s reaction is, whether they’re painting me as a victim or saying I deserve what happened. I like feeling removed from everything, but now…

What are they accusing me of?

“I’m sorry,” I say, shaking my head and trying to stay focused on the business at hand. “I thought that media coverage was a negative to getting published. Dr. Ralston told me that your publishing house wasn’t interested in my story because the bigger story was Christian. That people wouldn’t care about my book because they wanted me to write about his legal issues.”

“Right…” the woman says hesitantly. “But he’s not the story anymore. You are. Everyone is dying for real details of what happened to you and here you’ve written this book about pain, and devastation, and loss. It couldn’t be more perfect. This has best seller written all over it.”

I feel my face fall as the realization hits me. Carter was right. The sudden turnaround of interest in my manuscript wasn’t because of what I’d written, it’s because my name has been on TV. Because there’s a morbid quality to the curiosity and buying habits of the masses and the generous offers I’ve received are merely these publishers trying get a payday off of my trauma.

“We do believe,” one man says, “It would be prudent to change the name of the novel. Our research department has found that simply Escape will resonate with readers more profoundly as they believe it’s a more important allusion to what the public is looking for from you.”

“And we’d like you to add a forward,” the woman interjects. “Just a few words describing how writing was therapeutic for you, how this story was able to help you change your outlook on the world. Something uplifting, inspirational, a suggestion maybe that with this novel you hope to reach out to those who have suffered or have been through a horrific ordeal to help them heal. Again, alluding back to the kidnapping.”

I glance across the table, my gaze flitting to each of them and the hollow, black emptiness I can see behind their eyes. Suddenly, the room feels cold.

“Ana,” Mr. Prosser asks. “What do you want to do here?”

I take a breath and sort through the warring thoughts and emotions racing through my mind, and as the conflict becomes more and more apparent on my face, one of the men sitting across from me suddenly launches into the numbers aspect of the deal. They offer me a $30,000 advance, half upon signature, half after I’ve completed my promotional duties, and then 12.5% in royalties on the first 5,000 copies sold, 17% on every purchased copy thereafter. It’s a generous deal, more generous than the others I’ve received, but money isn’t my concern. I have money. My purpose with this book was always to try and reach people who needed a lifeline, the way I did when I wrote the story, and to do that, I have to get my book on the shelves. This deal may not be what I wanted it to be, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t accomplish what I’ve always set out to do.

“Fine,” I agree. “But you can make those royalty checks out to The Christian and Anastasia Grey Foundation, which my fiancé and I created to help victims of violence. You can spin that however you want to, I don’t care, but I want Random House to donate an additional three cents of every sale to my foundation as well. If you want this to be about evoking emotion over what happened to me to make money, I want that money to go to something good.”

The three of them exchange glances, even lean over to whisper in each other’s ears, and after a few minutes, the woman turns to me and smiles.

“I think we have deal.”

“Good. Send me a contract to sign, and we’ll get started.”

 

There are more details to iron out, most of which involve my promotional responsibilities and how I’m going to fulfil them so late in my pregnancy, but most of that discussion is postponed for a meeting scheduled after I complete my final exams. As we get up from the table and shake hands, there’s a celebratory kind of mood in the air, at least for them. I thank them graciously once more for their part in realizing my dreams, but when I leave the room, the false sense of elation I’ve put on immediately disappears.

“Congratulations, Anastasia!” Dr. Ralston says. “I’d told you that we’d make this happen.”

“We?” I repeat, rounding on him. “I’m sorry, what did you do?”

“I-I…” he stutters. “I got you this deal. I brought them to the table.”

“No, you didn’t. Because that would imply they were here for my book, for what I had written, but they’re not. They’re here because I was attacked outside my home and now that the media’s taken an interest in that, I’m a payday to them. If anything, the person who brought them to the table was the man who tried to kidnap me, so if you find out who that is, you let me know and I’ll send him your ten percent.”

“Anastasia…”

“You can bill me for the editing your class did over the summer if you’d like. I’ll send you a check for whatever you think is fair. But I think we’re done here, Dr. Ralston. I don’t need you anymore.”

I turn around and walk through the dark hallway, ignoring Prosser’s attempts to call me back, and I don’t stop until Luke and I get back to the car. As we pull away from the building and merge back into traffic on Cambridge Street, Luke seems content to let me stew in silence. Once we’re stopped at the first red light though, he finally looks over at me and reaches over to place a comforting hand on my forearm.

“You’re good enough, Ana. I’m sorry they’re too worried about bullshit gossip stories to see that, but you are good enough. Once your book is published, everyone else is going to see that too, and it’s not going to have anything to do with what happened to you.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I reply. “It would have been nice to feel like I did something on my own, but at the end of the day, I just hope at least one person gets something meaningful out of this. All I’ve ever wanted to was to help people who were feeling the same kind of devastation I felt when I wrote it, and to give them hope or the desire to go on. If I have to write a few stupid paragraphs about being held up in an alley and change the name of the book, that all seems very trivial compared to it’s real purpose.”

“Well, I’m proud of you, and I’m proud you didn’t just walk away. You put too much work into this for too long and it really is good. You should be proud.”

“Thanks, Luke,” I tell him, but as he turns to look through the front window again, I take a deep breath and ask the question that’s been nagging at me since it came up in the meeting. “What is the media saying about me?”

“What?”

“The allegations that woman from HarperCollins brought up. What is she talking about?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Luke. You know how sometimes you can be my best friend and sometimes you have to be my CPO? I need you to be my best friend right now.”

He glances over at me, takes a deep breath, and then sighs. “There have been some… questions as to how you got out of the situation you were in with no help and very minor injuries, and the fact that Grey had offered such a substantial reward for your return seems to be playing into that. Like you made some kind of deal…”

“What? Why would I…”

“I know, it’s ridiculous. They’re just looking for stories and if there’s anything more scandalous than a billionaire’s girlfriend being kidnapped, it’s a billionaire’s girlfriend faking a kidnapping to extort money from said billionaire. Grey thought that if you saw that, it might make things worse for you, so, we’ve been instructed to keep you away from it.”

“Yeah, but everyone else is reading it. My mom, my dad, HarperCollins. This could be why the police aren’t taking the security breach seriously. They might think I’m lying…”

“I know,” he agrees.

“So, why can’t we just tell them about Leila? That I had help escaping?”

“Because we can’t find her to verify that,” Luke says. “If we had any idea where she was, sure, we could respond. But right now, we’re not even sure that she’s alive.”

“She is,” I reply immediately. “She has to be. She’s just always been good at not being found.”

“I hope you’re right, because we really need her.”

We pull into the driveway of the house and before the car has even stopped all the way, Kommer is at my door. He helps me out of the car and then follows me up the walk to the house where we’re greeted by Champ’s excited, thunderous bark.

“Champ!” Kate yells, coming into the kitchen, and when she sees me standing there, her face immediately lights up with excitement. “So? What did they say?”

I pause and prepare myself to work up the excitement I know she’s going to expect. “I got a book deal,” I tell her, and she screams.

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Congratulations!” She bolts towards me and wraps me in a tight hug. “I knew you were going to do it, and HarperCollins! Ah! We are so celebrating tonight! Virgin margaritas for all!”

“Sounds great,” I say, laughing at her overzealous excitement, and then leaning back a little to look through the arch between the kitchen and living room. “Is Christian upstairs?”

“Nope, he’s not here,” she says, in an over satisfied way. “He and Carter haven’t come home yet.”  

“Did they drown?” I ask, narrowing my eyes, but she just smiles and shakes her head.

“Nope, they’re probably just out there bonding and becoming best lifelong friends.”

“Seriously, has anyone checked to make sure they’re alive?”

“Ana!” she exclaims indignantly, but when I laugh, she rolls her eyes and turns around for the cabinet. “They’ve got to be home soon. Let’s make dinner and make some plans to celebrate your deal. We should go out!”

“Easy there,” I tell her. “I’m still seven months pregnant and exhausted after a very full day. My idea of celebrating is vegging out on the couch and watching a movie.”

“Well, you better pick one that at least has a hot guy in it.” she says. “Full frontal nudity preferable.”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of full frontal nudity in my life tonight. You’re not the only one who is going to want to celebrate.”

“Gross,” she says, rolling her eyes, and I laugh.

We decide on tacos to go with the margaritas Kate is insistent on, and while we stand at the counter chopping vegetables together, I notice her phone buzzing again.

“Elliot?” I ask, as she picks up her phone to answer the text. She nods, but doesn’t give any further details, so I press her. “What’s he up to?”

“He broke up with Gia,” she says casually, as she sets her phone down, and I drop the knife in my hand.

“What?!”

“Yeah. He’s at Grace and Carrick’s right now and he’s staying there for a few days until she moves out.”

“Wh-what happened?”

“Remember how he thought she was cheating on him with that investment banker?”

My eyes widen. “She was?”

“No,” Kate says, shaking her head. “Apparently Christian’s security team is still monitoring her communication and she had another meeting scheduled with that guy so Elliot had that bodyguard that Christian hired to keep an eye on them secretly follow her to find out what the meeting was really about. But it turns out, the whole thing was legit. She was just meeting him to decline the contract that he’d offered her to do the interior of his new building.”

“So why did Elliot break up with her?”

“Because when he found out that she wasn’t cheating, he was actually kind of disappointed. I guess he realized that he had been hoping she was because he’s wanted to be done with her for awhile, he just didn’t want to hurt her. It would have been easier, you know? But once you know that’s how you feel, you can’t unknow it, so he had to break up with her. They got into a huge blow out about it last night and now he’s at his parents. He said he’s fully prepared to go home and find his house completely trashed. Apparently, she’s really pissed.”

“Yeah,” I nod. “But, she can’t possibly want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with her. What would she get out of that?”

Kate rolls her eyes. “Millions of dollars.”

I stare at her for a moment as she reaches down to answer another text on her phone, then slowly pick my knife back up to continue slicing the lettuce on the cutting board in front of me. “So… what does this mean for you, then?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Elliot’s single again and you two have been talking an awful lot…”

She shakes her head. “He may be single, but I’m not. I’m not going to throw away my relationship with Carter just because Elliot broke up with his girlfriend. The problems in our relationship haven’t changed. Elliot doesn’t want the same things I do, Carter does. I’m happy with Carter.”

“But do you love him?”

She frowns. “Maybe… I think I could. I don’t know, I’m very confused about my feelings. But I do know that the idea of breaking up with him is painful, so, that has to be the right track to love, right?”

“I don’t know… I knew right away that I loved Christian.”

“Well, sometimes love at first sight is real. Sometimes it has to be built. We’ve only been dating for three months, I think I deserve some time.”

“Okay, but if you’re really trying with Carter, then why are you hiding Elliot from him?”

“I’m not,” she says defensively, but when I raise an eyebrow at her, she frowns. “Fine, I am… but not because I’m being inappropriate with him, I’m just worried about how being friends with him will make Carter feel. I think we all have very clear memories of the last time a Grey brother got close to Carter’s girlfriend and I don’t want what happened between Christian and Carter, to happen with Elliot.”

“But I was partially at fault for that,” I admit. “I did things with Christian behind Carter’s back and I wasn’t honest about my feelings for him. The whole thing with Carter blew up because he found Christian and I together in a way that we shouldn’t have been and that’s what started the animosity between them. He’s going to feel the same way if he finds out you’ve been talking to him behind his back. You need to tell him, Kate. Especially if he’s going back to Seattle with you.”

She sighs, but nods. “Okay. I’ll tell him. But if someone gets punched out, it’s your fault.”

I laugh. “Just don’t make out with Elliot at a Halloween party and you should be in the clear.”

“Oh my god,” she says, pouting suddenly. “That was such a fun party! Remember how cute our costumes were?”

“Of course I do,” I tell her. “There’s a picture of us in those costumes in the living room.”

“Oh right,” she laughs, and while I laugh with her, the back door opens and, to my surprise, Christian and Carter come in, both smiling as they talk to one another.

“Beer?” Carter asks, and Christian nods before coming over and wrapping his arms around me.

“Mmm,” he hums, burying his face into the curve of my neck. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

“I could say the same about you,” I say, turning in his arms to kiss him and noting that his face is several shades darker. “You look like you got some sun. How was it?”

“Good. Reed’s actually not as terrible as I remember him being.”

“That’s because I wasn’t ever terrible,” Carter says, placing a cold beer on the counter next to me for Christian. “You were just pissed off at me all the time because you wanted to fuck my girlfriend.”

“And I hate to tell you this, but I did do that.” He points down to my baby bump and Carter laughs.

“That’s alright, I made out pretty great in the end. Hey, baby.” Kate smiles and leans over to kiss him, before she reaches over to stir the shredded beef frying in the pan.

“Are you hungry?” she asks. “We’re making tacos and virgin margaritas!”

“Virgin?” Carter repeats. “Why?”

“Because we, including Ana, are celebrating.”

“What are we celebrating?” Christian asks, and Kate smiles as she turns to look at me.

“I accepted HarperCollins offer today,” I say, and Christian’s eyes widen with excitement.

“You did?” I nod. “Congratulations, Anastasia!” He sweeps me up from the ground, spinning me once, and the enthusiasm and happiness I see reflected on his face is too much for me to dampen with the less than ideal details behind the deal, so I don’t. At the end of the day, my manuscript is going to be published, and no matter what the circumstance are, that fact remains. For now, I’m going to be grateful for that and celebrate with the people I love.

“Jesus, Kate!” Carter says, his mouth hanging open as he lets out long, harsh breaths. “Think you put enough jalapeno in that?”

“Oh don’t be a baby,” Kate says. “And it’s not jalepeno, it habanero.”

“Ugh, no wonder. Where’s the blender? I need that margarita.”

I twist away from Christian to get the blender out of the cabinet while he and Kate set the table. When we’re finally able to sit down, I place a lime colored drink in front of each place setting and then take my seat next to Christian. It’s nice, finally getting back to what’s become our normal after my meeting this afternoon. The whole night has me in a great mood, especially watching Christian laughing and actively participating in conversation with Carter. This afternoon seems to have done exactly what Kate planned for it to, the ice has completely melted between the two of them, and now the four of us sitting around this table feels more like family than just two couples who happen to live in the same house.

“Alright,” Carter grimaces as he finishes the margarita I’ve put in front of him and then eyes the half full pitcher in the middle of the table with disinterest. “Without tequila, this is just pure sugar.”

Kate nods in agreement as she too makes a disatisfied face after taking a drink for herself. “Round two, Cervezas.”

“Oh sure, go ahead. Have your alcohol. I’ll just suffer with my sugar drink alone…”

“Deal.” Carter says, getting up from the table and heading for the fridge. Once he’s taken two out for him and Kate, he grabs a third and tilts it towards Christian. “You want one?”

Christian shakes his head and then reaches under the table to grip my leg just above my knee. “No, I think we’re just about ready to turn in for the night. Ana looks tired.”

“I’m not tired,” I tell him, and he raises an eyebrow at me.

“Are you sure? Because I think you’re very, very tired after such a long day.”

“Oh…” I reply, picking up on the implication of his words, and as he tightens his hold on my leg, I smile. “I am a little tired.”

“Then let’s get you to bed.” He gets out of his seat and then helps pull back my chair, and as I glance down at Kate and see the knowing look on her face that proves we’re not fooling her at all, I find myself more glad than ever that it’s her night to do the dishes.

“Night, Kate,” I tell her. She raises an eyebrow at me.

“You too, Annie. I’ll assume any screaming I hear is just from the night terrors.”

“That’s a safe bet,” Christian says, and without any warning, he sweeps me up into his arms and carries me off to the stairs.

When he’s closed us off in our room, he takes me to the bed and lays me out before crawling over the top of me and taking my lips with his. With each soft kiss he leaves on my mouth, my smile widens, and I find myself glad for once that he doesn’t deepen the kiss and hold me there, because I’d have to close my eyes and that would be a shame with the way he looks right now, tanned, happy, and absolutely gorgeous.

“I’m really proud of you,” he says, settling in next to me and taking me into his arms. “You’ve accomplished something truly remarkable, Ana. I should give you something to commemorate it. Jewelry, or… maybe a car. We could start looking at sailboats for the new house.”

“No need for that, Mr. Grey. There’s only one thing I want and it’s not something you can buy.” He raises an eyebrow at me so I reach up into his hair and pull his mouth down to mine. At first, he lets me set the pace and follows my lead as I push my tongue past his lips and pivot my body towards him. Soon though, I hit a roadblock as my protruding baby bump makes it impossible for me to roll over the top of him without breaking away from our kiss.

“Here,” he whispers against my lips. “Let me.” I feel his hands push gently against my shoulder so that I roll back into the pillow and he presses into my side, his hands exploring my body while his tongue moves languidly through my mouth.

“I’m wearing too many clothes,” I tell him. The corner of his mouth ticks up into a smile, and his fingers move to the buttons on the front of my blouse. I moan and arch my back, pressing my breasts into his hands as they move down to the center of my body. Once the last button is unfastened, he pulls the fabric away from my skin and we both move down to begin work on my pants.

“Now you,” I moan when I’m lying beneath him in only my bra.

He sits up on his knees and slowly pulls his heathered blue shirt over his head, revealing each of the rock hard muscles on his abdomen one at a time. My teeth sink into my bottom lip as he tosses his shirt to the floor and I get to take in his full, perfect form. His broad shoulders, his swollen biceps, his pectoral muscles, which are so perfect they look as though they’re carved from stone. He’s so beautiful, and he’s all mine.

“This gives me very intriguing ideas,” he says huskily as he reaches down to free my lip from my teeth.

“Like your cock in my mouth?” I ask. He smiles.

“For instance.”

“Then give it to me, Christian. Let me taste you.”

His eyes darken and his hands move for the button on the front of his shorts, unfastening them deftly until I can follow the enthralling line of hair that trails down to the base of his erection. I sit up immediately, moving to my knees as I reach into his pants to free him, and the moment I have him hard and ready in my hand, I wrap my lips around him.

“Deep, Ana,” he pleads. “Take me deep.”

My mouth begins to water as I hear the longing in his voice and I pull his erection deeper into my mouth, keeping my lips tight around him until he hits the back of my throat.

“Yessss, just like that,” he groans. His hands twist into my hair and he thrusts forward, encouraging me to take him as far into my mouth as I can each time my mouth moves down over his erection. I massage him on every pass with the flat of my tongue, revisiting every inch of the familiar territory that I’ve already learned by heart. The feel of him, smooth and yet so firm, between my lips drives the desire inside of me and has heat pooling between my legs. My body is anticipating what’s to come, and I’m hungry for it.

“Fuck, I love your mouth,” he hisses as I hold him in my throat and force myself to swallow. I look up at him through my lashes as I pull away from him, opening my lips so he can see his erection drag across my tongue.

“Just my mouth?”

“Oh no, baby. Not just your mouth.” Leaning down, he kisses me deeply, distracting me as he reaches for my hips, but once his fingers close around my middle, he pulls away from my lips and flips me around onto my hands and knees. “Get that ass in the air.”

I moan as I slide down on the sheets, pushing my chest into the bed and raising my behind as high as I can. His hand slides between my legs and my insides clench as his fingers make contact with my clitoris.

“Oh Jesus, you’re already so wet,” he groans.

“I want you.”

He slides a finger inside of me, then another, pumping them in and out while I keen desperately beneath him, letting myself fall mercy to his expert touch. When I start pushing back on him, he let’s out a low growl, removes his fingers, and I feel the tip of his erection brush lightly against me.

“Is this what you want?”

“Yes!”

“Then take it. Push back and fuck yourself on me, slowly.”

My fingers twist into my sheets as I shift backwards, and a long, drawn out gasp escapes my lips as I feel him slide inside of me, stretching me, electrifying me with need that I know won’t be sated by slow, gentle love making. I lift my hips and fall down on him again and again, clenching each time I feel him press against my pubic bone, and each time I tighten my walls around him, he lets out a low, pleasure filled moan.

“Oh fuck,” I breathe as I push all the way back onto him and begin to swivel my hips so that he’s moving against every part of me. His hands tighten on my hips while I grind against him again and again, until eventually he hisses a needy sounding fuck, pulls back, and begins to pound into me. His thrusts are violent and unmerciful, training my insides to his rhythm, which will eventually be matched by the convulsions of my orgasm. I scream out my pleasure, his name, all too loudly. I know Kate and Carter can probably hear me, but I can’t stop the frenzied, feral noises coming out of me. Even Christian seems to gasp and groan with a loud, deep baritone each time his hips make contact with my ass, and when I come around him, he actually yells.

“Oh, fuck!”

“Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop,” I plead in time with each of his thrusts, and he complies. He continues to piston in and out of me while I fly so high through my orgasm the heat coursing through me begins to burn, like I’ve flown directly into the sun.

“Oh fuck, Ana,” he breathes, leaning back but not faltering in his pace. “You feel so fucking incredible when you come.”

“I want yours,” I whimper. “I want your come. Come inside of me, Christian.”

He groans again and tightens his fingers on my hips, pressing into me so hard that it’s almost painful, but I relish in it. I want him to hold me tighter, bruise me, as he pours his release inside of me.

“Shit, I’m gonna come,” he tells me, and, while his pace increases, I begin to flex and pull my kegals until he stills and cries out a strangled, garbled version of my name.

When he comes down, he pulls out of me, taps his erection a few times against my clitoris, and then collapses on the bed next to me. His arms open and I slowly stretch out my limbs until I’m flat on the mattress and I can snuggle tightly into his side.

“Mmm,” I hum in approval as his arms wrap around me. “I love this part. You pressed against me while my entire body feels like it’s melting into the bed. I think the good doctor is right, orgasms are definitely good for my blood pressure.”

He lets out a low chuckle and then presses his lips against the apex of my cheekbone. “I think that being apart wasn’t good for your stress. I should have come here more, spent more time here, made you travel less…”

“It wasn’t possible. I’m just glad you’re here now.”

“Me too. These past month has been so good, I’m almost sorry that we’re going home in a few weeks.”

“Ros would kill you if you didn’t,” I say with a very tired laugh, and then sigh. “I guess everything comes to an end eventually.”

“Not everything,” he says and he tilts my face back to his so he can kiss me once more. When he pulls away, he brushes his hand over my cheek and places one last, quick kiss on the tip of my nose. “Sleep, baby. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

“Mmm,” I hum again, and as his arms tighten around me, my last conscious thought fades away and I drift into a peaceful, relaxing sleep.

Next Chapter

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