Chapter 38

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In my final weeks at Harvard, the thought had crossed my mind that I might be restless post graduation. I didn’t have a Monday through Friday job lined up the way Kate did, or even prospects to continue on in school like Carter. Essentially, I felt as though I’d be floating, bored. But that hasn’t been the case. If anything, I have more to do now that I ever did when I was up late writing papers or studying for exams.

Christian has hired a full time, live in nanny to help me with Calliope during the day while he’s at work, but, in addition to the time it took her get through Taylor’s new screening process, it was weeks before I allowed her anywhere near my daughter. Not just because of the deep seated distrust both Leila’s and Elena’s admissions have given me about any strangers infiltrating our tightly guarded inner circle, but because I simply want to be the one to take care of my daughter. I want to feed her, change her, put her down for her naps, and subsequently check on her every two minutes to make sure she’s still breathing. But since Calliope still won’t breastfeed, the sheer amount of time I spend just pumping in a day has made balancing the impending publish date of my book, being the sole caregiver for my daughter, and making plans for the wedding that Christian, in the wake of Calliope’s birth, now insists must happen sooner rather than later, impossible. In fact, I’m just retrieving the enormous list of guests Christian wants to invite to witness our impending nuptials from the printer when my phone rings and I look down and see Lydia Palermo, the agent I’ve hired to replace Dr. Ralston in representing me while my book is being published, splashed across the screen.

“Hey, Lydia,” I answer, tucking the stack of papers under my arm and hurrying back down the stairs where I’ve left all the other wedding planning materials spread over the coffee table.

“Hi, Ana. I just got off the phone with Random House and they’re willing to push back the soft release until July 19th and the hard release until 26th, but that’s the latest they’ll go, and they’re insistent your book tour will continue on the 26th as planned. They’ve already booked your first nine appearances.”

“And none of that can be pushed back?” I ask. “By even just a few weeks?”

“They’re not even willing to have a discussion about it,” she sighs. “The publicity materials about your signings and readings have already been sent to the printers. They told you they wanted to move fast and you signed a contract.”

“I know, and I want honor that contract, it’s just that Christian has kind of settled on July 30th as our wedding day and…”

“So pick a new date,” she interrupts me. “You’ll only be gone nineteen days.”

“Do you want to tell him that?”

She laughs. “Unfortunately that falls outside of my duties as your literary agent. I do wish you the best of luck though.”

“Mmm. Well, send me the confirmations and itinerary, I guess.  They’ve booked rooms and travel accommodations for Calliope, three security guards, and a nanny, right?”

“I made sure of it.”

“Thanks,” I reply, and then bite my lip as I prepare myself to ask my next question. One of the reasons I was so eager to hire Lydia is that she has clients and contacts through all five major publishing companies and several independent presses scattered throughout the US and the UK, and having her on my team means I can use her connections to my advantage.

“Have…” I hesitate, but force myself to continue. “Have you heard anything about the manuscript I asked you to look out for yet?”

“Nope,” she says, confident in her denial. “And I don’t think you have to worry about it. Harper Collins isn’t going to touch it because of their contract with you, and I’ve spoken to my partners at Hachette, Macmillan, Random House, and Simon and Schuster, anything that pops up will be sent back to you immediately. None of them are interested in fighting your fiancé and the power of Grey Enterprises Holdings through litigation for something that essentially equates to a celebrity tell all written by a woman who is serving time for committing sex crimes. The public outcry over selling her story would be outrageous, definitely not worth the headache. If she does try to sell it though, we’ll put a stop to it. We’re all on your side, Ana. You just worry about your upcoming book tour and getting started on book number two. Once Escape hits the stands, your fans are going to be ravenous for whatever your brilliant mind comes up with next.”

I laugh and roll my eyes. “Will do, and thank you so much for your help, Lydia. Seriously. Both Christian and I really appreciate it.”

“No problem, Ana. Talk to you soon.”

“Bye.”

I hang up the phone and sigh with relief, until I look back down at the guest list again and the information sheets for the two wedding venues in Seattle that had availability for the date Christian wanted, but that are now no longer viable. Finding anything that wasn’t booked for a date six weeks in advance has been extraordinarily difficult. Finding one available sooner than that is going to be impossible. Especially if we’re to find somewhere that can accommodate as many people as Christian apparently wants to invite…

I press my fingers into my temple, trying to relieve the tension headache growing stronger by the second behind my eye, then look up when I hear the elevator ping and watch Luke trudge dejectedly into the great room. His appearance instantly pushes my concerns over the wedding aside. The background checks Taylor has been pulling on essentially everyone we know are starting to trickle in, and day by day, everyone around me has been pulled into his office and questioned about what has been found in their past. Today, it was Luke.

“How’d it go?” I ask as he plops down on the couch next to me.

“Rough,” he replies. “That was worse than when I was hired. Taylor’s been so granular going through every detail of my past to try to find something to connect me to this guy that he had my elementary school report cards in my file. He’s noted every phone call I’ve made in the past two years, gone line by line through my bank records, re-verified every one of my travel plans that I’ve made since Grey hired me, and still, he grilled me so hard that he almost had me questioning whether or not I was behind it all.”

“I know it’s not you,” I assure him. “But, you’re the one who is around me the most and you heard Christian. Every one is a suspect now and you just needed to be eliminated from that list. He’s just being thorough.”

“Well, I’m not a suspect anymore,” he says. “But I can’t say the same for Cardella.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, Taylor found out that her dad has a ton of gambling debt, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars. He thinks it’s motive enough that she could be leaking information about you and Grey.”

“Gambling debt?” I frown as I consider the consequences of this, and as I compare what I know of Cardella with what’s happened over the last few months, I feel my stomach drop. “Oh my god… she was supposed to be here that morning I was almost kidnapped. The rest of the security team went to GEH for that meeting with Taylor, but she was supposed to stay. She said there was a miscommunication, that she thought Kommer was staying, but… she was the last one to leave. She knew I was alone.”

“And she was the last to come back after the hospital called and said you’d been found,” Luke says. “She was also the person who’d brought all your gifts to the arts center for your graduation party, the gifts we found that box he’d left for you in. She was the last one to leave the building, and the one responsible for locking up.”

“So, it’s her. She’s the inside leak.”

He sighs. “She denied it, but obviously she would. We brought her into Grey’s office and our team team questioned her, tried to find any holes in her story, and to get her to reveal something useful, but she didn’t. She said she knew nothing, and that’s what we got out of her. Nothing. So, either she’s telling the truth or this guy who’s coming after you has actually thought of everything, including only hiring people who are excellent liars.”

“He’s been working with Elena, taking advice from her, letting her help plan…” I shake my head. “He’s thought of everything.”

“Grey said the same thing. He fired Cardella this afternoon and gave her employee file and statements from our team to the FBI.”

“FBI?”

“This guy has committed crimes across state lines, this is bigger than just the police now. Not that the police have been any help. An investigation has been started but, since this guy seems to have an insider leaking information, we’re keeping it as quiet as we can to prevent him from being able to evade us.”

“Who knows?”

“Grey. Taylor. Me. And now you.”

“Oh… so, what happened when he fired her? I mean, she didn’t make any threats or anything, did she?”

He shakes his head. “No, but she was upset. Grey was pretty harsh, vicious even, and he did it right in front of everyone. She was shaking when she left his office.”

“Great,” I reply in dismay. “As if we don’t have enough enemies.”

Luke shrugs. “He’s angry and I don’t think he can control it when he feels so desperate to protect you. He’s going to do anything and everything in his power to make sure you’re safe and that we find this guy before anything else happens. That’s the only thing he seems to care about right now and the longer we go without knowing who’s behind it all, the more furious he gets. Well, that and he’s not getting laid. He’s been cranky.”

He smiles at me but as I roll my eyes and push the pointless pile of papers on the table in front of me to the side, he sits up straight and begins scanning the room around us.

“Where’s my kid?”

“Your kid?” I repeat, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, my kid. Adorable little baby, brown hair, gray eyes, about this big… you can’t miss her. She’s the cutest fucking baby you’ve ever seen.”

I laugh. “She’s upstairs with Ava. She’s been fussy all afternoon so she’s trying to put her down for a nap.”

“She’s been fussy because Uncle Luke has been gone. But I’m here now and I’m ready for some baby time.” He jumps off the couch, bounds for the stairs, and I lean over the table, resting my cheek in my hand as I watch him go. The extent to which Calliope has everyone in this house wrapped around her finger is astounding, and yet, I can’t blame any of them. She really is the most perfect thing in existence.

“Ana?” Gail calls, stepping out of the kitchen. “Taylor just called, he and Mr. Grey are on their way home. Should I start dinner?”

“Yes, please. Thank you, Gail.”

She smiles and nods, and as she turns back to the kitchen, Luke begins to descend the stairs with a bundle of blankets in his arms, our new nanny trailing closely behind him.

“Here she is,” he coos as he takes his place on the couch next to me again. “I think she may have gotten bigger in just the couple hours I was at GEH today.” He frowns as he looks down at her angelic, sleeping face. “Stop growing, kid.”

“No, keep growing,” I counter. “She’s still almost a full pound smaller than she should be.”

“But I like her tiny. Look at these hands. Are you telling me you don’t want these hands to stay this size forever?”

“Mmm. Yeah, almost as much as I want her to keep her chubby little legs.”

He laughs and then leans down to kiss her on top of her head, squeezing her tightly against him before taking another long pause just to stare at her. As he reaches down and strokes his finger softly over her cupid’s bow, I push myself up off the floor and slide onto the couch next to them.

“So, what else isn’t Christian telling me. It’s been six weeks and nothing…”

“It takes a long time to review this stuff, Ana. We’re trying to be as thorough as possible.”

“No, I mean, it’s been six weeks and nothing has happened. No more threats, no more attempted kidnappings, no more phone calls. What is he waiting for?”

Luke sighs. “I don’t know. It’s got Taylor on edge too. I’d like to think he’s pulling back because we’re getting close, but in reality, I think he’s just biding his time. Regrouping and looking for an opening. But I won’t let him find one. I haven’t taken my eye off of anything, I promise.”

“You’re sure you’re not spread too thin?”

“No. I can handle it.”

I take a breath, wishing I had full confidence in his assertions, but I know how much he has on his plate. How much the entire security team has on their plate. And without Cardella, that load just got a little heavier for everyone.    

“How are you doing reviewing the security footage you got off the server at the prison?” I ask. “Do we know who’s been to see Elena yet?”

“No,” he sighs. “But I’ve still got 872 hours of footage left to review.”

“I just feel like you should have already seen something. I mean, I wrote a book, I know how long it takes, so he had to have commissioned it in the summer or early fall. And, we know he was in contact with her before she started writing because she was the one who came up with the plan to oust Welch and that happened over Thanksgiving. If Christian is right and the head guard has tampered with the visitors log to erase any proof of this guy meeting with her, then he may have also erased the corresponding security footage. What if he never visited her at all? What if all of this was coordinated through letters or over the phone?”

“Then we’ll find ourselves at a dead end. But until I’ve gone through everything we have, I’m not just going to give up.”

“I’m not suggesting you do. I just want to know what our plan b is.”

“Well, plan b is probably going down to the prison and…” he begins, but his voice cuts off when the elevator doors open again and Christian and Taylor step into the foyer. Because it’s Christian, Kommer, who’d stayed behind with me while Luke was being interviewed at GEH this afternoon, steps out of the security office and waits to be dismissed so he can take his turn at being interrogated by Taylor.

“Where is she?” Christian asks, and Kommer nods in our direction.

“In the living room, sir.”

“Good. I’ll leave you to it then.” Both Kommer and Taylor nod and disappear back into the security office while Christian turns to lock down the elevator with the new external security system that’s been installed and then steps into the great room, but as he approaches the couch where Luke and I are sitting, his eyes aren’t searching for me.

“There she is,” he says, groaning slightly as he reaches down and lifts Calliope out of Luke’s arms and into his own. Once he no longer has a hold of her, Luke turns to me and scrunches his face together in a look of disappointment, but as I laugh, he claps his hand over my knee, perhaps a little too hard, and heaves himself off the couch.

“Stop distracting me, Ana,” he says. “I have work to be doing.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes, but smile after him as he quickly moves out of the great room and ducks into the security office to join Taylor and Kommer. When I turn back to Christian and see the now customary look of pure adoration he gives her as he sways back and forth, rocking her gently in his arms, my smile widens. The longer I stare though, the less my fascination is focused on his love for our daughter, and more on simply him.

“What?” he asks, looking down at me while I subtly bite down on my bottom lip.

I shake my head. “Nothing. Just you.” My eyes rake over him again, drinking him in, and my breath hisses between my teeth. “You know maybe you should change before you come home from work. You standing there, looking like you do in that suit… it’s not really fair.”

“Don’t talk to me about fair. I watched you folding laundry yesterday in nothing but one of my t-shirts and a thong. Do you have any idea what bouncing on the exercise ball with Calliope all day, every day, has done to your ass? Good things, Ana. Very good things.”

His eyes darken as they shift down to my bare legs, curled beneath me on the couch, and I feel all of the muscles inside of me clench. Unfortunately though, I still have five days before our six week celibacy constraint comes to an end, so I quickly change the subject.

“How was your day? Is the new building everything you hoped it would be?”

“Yeah, it’s been great actually. The integrated technology interfaces have really changed our productivity. Meetings are easier, my communication with Ros has vastly improved, our servers are running faster, and it finally feels like we’ve visually caught up to the success we’ve had. Elliot did a great job, except I wish he’d had the foresight to put a daycare in my office.”

“You think I’d let you take my baby out of this apartment to be around a bunch of germy little kids all day?”

“A bunch of kids? No, I meant in my office. Next to my desk. Basically I’m telling you that I’m going to buy a pack n’ play and start taking her to work with me.”

“I don’t think so,” I laugh. “You’ll have to fight me for her.”

“In a few days, I’d be more than happy to subdue you until you agree to my terms.” He smirks and raises his eyebrows at me suggestively, and while I giggle at his not so subtle promise, Mrs. Jones steps out of the kitchen again and begins laying dinner out on the dining room table. Christian reaches down for my hand and helps me to my feet, then regretfully relinquishes Calliope to Ava.

“Again?” he asks, once we’ve settled down at the table and I pass him the bowl of Chicken Caesar salad. “What, did Gail forget how to use the oven while we were in Cambridge?”

“That’s my fault. I have a wedding dress to fit into and despite hardly eating anything in the hospital for 10 days and doing about a billion squats over the past few weeks whenever I have to try and calm Calliope down, I still have nine pounds to lose before I’m back to my pre-pregnancy size.”

“I wish you wouldn’t worry about that. I think you look just as good as the day I met you.”

“That’s because I am the same size I was when you met me. But I didn’t work my butt off on a treadmill for 2 ½ years to be that size on my wedding day. The internet says my uterus should be back to it’s normal size by now, there’s no excuse for… all of this.” I wave my hands over my body where I feel as though I’m carrying extra weight, and Christian frowns.

“I think you’re beautiful.”

“And I appreciate that. But I want to feel beautiful.” I reach out for the glass of ice water next to my placesetting, but stop when Christian gets out of his chair and comes around the table towards me. His hand moves into my hair and, slowly, he pulls me into him until his lips press against mine. The soft moan he lets out as I kiss him back sends shivers down my back and when his tongue tangles with mine the tension the stress of the day has left in my body immediately melts away and there is no longer a wedding to plan, a book to publish, a crazy psycho on the loose, or even dinner on the table in front of me. There is only Christian. This beautiful, sexy man, who I want with every fiber of my being.

“How do you feel now?” he asks when he pulls away.

“Aroused.”

He laughs at my flat, sardonic tone and then adjusts himself through his trousers as he straightens his back and glances down at me with lust burning in his eyes. “Right back at you, baby. More so than you know.”

“I think I have a pretty good idea.” I bite down on my lip, and his eyes narrow before he lets out a long, disappointed sigh and takes his seat again. We eat for a moment in charged silence, until I finally say something to take our minds off what we both want, but can’t have.

“So, what do you want to do on Saturday?”

He raises an eyebrow and gives me sly smile. “You want a play by play of everything I’ve been fantasizing about over the last six weeks?”

“Not that part of Saturday. Your mother called me this morning, she wanted to know what you want to do for your birthday.”

“My birthday?”

“Yes, Saturday is also your birthday.”

“Really?” He takes his phone out of his pocket and flips through the apps, presumably for his calendar, and then lets out a surprised, huh, before leaning back in his chair and eventually smiling. “I guess that really changes what I’m allowed to ask for…”

I shake my head, but don’t bother hiding my smile. “I’m looking more for family oriented requests. You know, activities your parents and little sister can be present for.”

He frowns. “I don’t really want to make a big deal out of it. We have more important things to worry about right now.”

“I disagree. I think we need normalcy and things to celebrate now more than ever. This year’s been tough, but it’s also been really great and we keep forgetting that. We’re engaged, we’ve had a baby, we’re only a few weeks away from moving into the house that’s going to be our daughter’s family home… there’s so much I’m grateful for and all of that is because of you. I want to celebrate you, Christian. We all do.”

He takes a deep breath, considering the sincerity of my words for a moment, and then nods. “Okay. We’ll take the yacht out for the weekend and bring the whole family along. We’ll all be together and we won’t need as much security so Taylor can stay behind to continue his investigation.”

“How’s that going? I heard you fired Cardella today.”

“Mmm,” he hums, confirming but not elaborating.

“Do you really think she’s the inside leak?” I press him.

“I don’t know, but I have more reason to believe she is than she isn’t. She didn’t give us any useful information to help us find this fuck though, so it all feels like a wash in the end.”

“Not if she was giving him inside information. I want us to find out who he is and I want for him to be out of our lives for good, but until we can make that happen, the most important thing is keeping Calliope safe. And we do that by circling the wagons and keeping him from seeing our hand.”

“I know,” Christian nods. “And we don’t need Cardella to find him. He’s going to slip up, and I’ll be there when he does. He can’t hide from me forever, and once I find him, I will make sure he never comes near you or Calliope ever again.”

“I know you will,” I assure him, and as he nods, I lean over the table to kiss him once more.

“So, how was your day?” Christian asks, picking up his fork to eat again. “Did you pick a venue?”

“Actually… I need to talk to you about that.”

“Oh?”

“Lydia called me this afternoon. Random House won’t postpone my book tour. I’m going to be travelling from July 26th to August 15th. We can’t get married on the 30th.”

His chewing slows as he stares at me, but when I don’t say anything else, he swallows, takes a breath, and then nods.

“Okay, so we move the date up one weekend.”

“Or… postpone it…”

“Postpone it? You mean, until you get back?”

“Or, maybe, until next summer…”

“Next summer!”

“I just feel like we’re rushing this so much that we’ve had to compromise on everything and this wedding doesn’t even look the way I’d dreamed it would anymore.”

“Okay,” he says, his voice controlled and patient, telling me he’s about to shift into negotiation mode. “What do you want to change?”

“Well, for starters I don’t want to get married in just some random hotel or skyscraper in the middle of the city. There’s nothing about either of those places that makes me feel a connection to you or reminds me of the wonderful parts of our life that we’ve shared together. I’d love to get married in Paris or Vermont, or… by the ocean. Don’t you remember standing on that beach in Hawaii and how beautiful it was when the sun went down over the water? The way it felt standing there together, like we had our whole future ahead of us and it was bright and exciting? That’s what I want for our wedding, not just whatever place is available.”

“Okay, then let’s try the yacht club. It’s on the sound and we can get married at sunset.”

“I did. They’re booked through the end of the summer and have already started taking reservations for next spring. There’s no where on the water that isn’t booked solid until next year.”

“I’ll try. I’m sure someone would be willing to give up their reservation for the right price, and if that’s what you want, I’ll pay whatever it takes.”

“And what are you going to do about the guests? That list you sent me has almost 350 names on it.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“But… why? I looked at that list and I don’t even know like 80% of those people. I mean…” I get up and hurry back to the coffee table in the great room where I’ve left the guest list Christian sent me that afternoon and begin flipping through it as I return to him. “Okay, who is Lois Greenman?”

He sits back in his chair and folds his arms. “City councilwoman. She’s the head of the committee that approves land grants and zoning initiatives for the city of Seattle. Her approval means that I may be able to expand my shipping yard in the next fiscal year, which is key to the sustainability of my manufacturing division. Her approval will be much easier to get if she feels as though we have a personal relationship and I’ve worked extremely hard to cultivate that relationship at all of those galas and charity events that you hate being dragged to.”

I purse my lips together. “Fine. As much as I’m not crazy about the idea of you using our wedding to broker a business deal, fine. But what about… Astor Harrington?”

He shrugs. “Some people just need to know that you are officially and forever will be mine.”

I narrow my eyes at him and then, very purposefully, reach down and cross Astor’s name off the list. Christian doesn’t flinch, so I look down at the pages in front of me to find more names to remove, but looking through line after line of unfamiliar names just seems to overwhelm me again and I have to stop. I rest my face in my hands and as I take a deep, calming breath, I hear Christian sigh.

“Ana, are you… are you getting cold feet?”

My eyes snap up to him immediately. “Of course not. This has nothing to do with marrying you, Christian, this just isn’t how I dreamed our wedding would be. I was picturing something intimate and beautiful, with all of our friends and family watching as we pledge our love to one another. That when we take our vows, we’re doing it because it’s right and we’re ready, not because we’re being scared into it by some faceless psycho who’s hanging over our lives like the specter of death.”

Christian leans forward to rest his elbows on the table and begins scrubbing his hands over his face, but he doesn’t say anything.

“You’re mad…” I say softly.

“No.” He shakes his head. “I’m just trying to understand what you’re feeling because… what you’re saying doesn’t make sense to me. Yes, we’re both under a lot of stress, and yes, I’d ideally like our wedding to happen without the weight of what we’re facing hovering over us, and maybe we’ve made these plans very quickly, but I don’t feel like we’re rushing into this. If anything, I feel like I’ve been waiting an eternity for this day to finally come and… I don’t want to wait anymore. Maybe I’ve tried to make this bigger than you wanted, or grander, and maybe I am going overboard, but… I love you, more than anything, and I just want this day to be as big and momentous as it feels to me. If you don’t want the big guest list, we won’t have it. If you don’t want the expensive venue and grand ballrooms for the reception, consider them gone. We can get married right on the lake in my parents back yard, or on the yacht, or we can put everyone on my plane and fly to that same beach in Hawaii and get married at sunset. I don’t care. At the end of the day, all I want is to finally be married to you, and I can’t wait another year for that to happen, Ana.”

I lean my cheek on my hand as I listen to what he says and then nod. It’s a compromise. He’s conceding what I don’t want in exchange for what he needs. It’s fair and while I would prefer to postpone our wedding until we’ve resolved this horrific nightmare with whoever is after us, maybe the lesson that the universe tried to teach me with the almost kidnapping and Calliope’s birth is that I need to stop taking time for granted. There are no promised tomorrows, or next years. Life isn’t a guarantee and so you have to take what you want while you can. Right now, I want Christian. I want to be his, and for him to be mine, until death do us part.  

“Okay, we won’t wait,” I tell him. “We’ll talk to your parents about having the wedding at their house while we’re out on the yacht this weekend and we’ll get married on the 23rd before I leave.”

“Good.” He nods, and as he talks a breath of relief, I get out of my chair, move to him, and straddle his lap.

“We don’t need the expensive venus and the grand ballrooms for our wedding to feel momentous. It already will be, because that’s the way I love you. You are the center of my universe, Christian Grey, and whether we get married next month or next year, nothing will change that. I will love you with everything I have inside of me until my very last day.”

“Forever.”

“And ever, and ever, and ever…” I continue, until eventually, he cuts off my words with a kiss.

 

****

 

Leaving for the marina Friday morning is chaos. When Christian handed Calliope off to me in the morning before he left for work, she immediately melted down into a fit of tears that nothing seems to be able to stop.

“You’re certain she’s not wet or something?” Luke asks as I fight to get her fastened into her carseat in the back of the SUV.

“No, she’s not wet, she’s not hungry, she doesn’t want to sleep… she just wants to cry.” I snap, my frustration coming out more than I mean for it to.

“Here, try a pacifier,” my dad suggests, passing it to me, but when I lean over her seat and brush the tip of the nipple against her bottom lip she doesn’t even attempt to suckle.

“Please, Calliope,” I beg over the sound of her screaming.

“Harrison just texted me,” Luke interrupts. “Kate just got to the marina with the rest of the Greys. They’re waiting on us.”

“Okay.” I sigh and try to take a moment to compose myself before I crawl into the seat next to her, but her shrill scream is like a hammer chipping away at my heart.

“You always slept in the car,” my dad assures me as Luke begins pulling out of the garage beneath Escala. “Anytime you got into fits like this, your mom and I would put you in the car and drive you around until you fell asleep. It worked every time.”

“Well, I hope she takes after me then.” I lean over her seat and make soft clicking sounds with my tongue as I twister her tiny fingers around my index finger. “Please, take after me…”

She doesn’t. The entire time we fight the traffic of downtown Seattle on our way to the marina, she screams and screams with as much force as her little lungs can muster.

“Oh dear, Calliope,” Grace says while I finally step out of the car on the loading dock next to the yacht and she reaches inside to pull my crying baby from her car seat. “What’s the matter, angel?”

“Her dad left and he’s the only one she loves,” I say dejectedly.

“Oh, do you miss your daddy?” Grace continues. “It’s okay, my sweet little baby, he’s going to be here tonight. Oh…” She pulls her more tightly into her chest but it does nothing to comfort her. If anything, it makes her scream louder.

“She is just not having it today,” Kate says. She reaches out to take her from Grace and gently bounces her in her arms, but nothing.

“I think they’re done with the security checks,” Elliot says, walking up behind Kate. He nods over his shoulder at Ryan, Kommer, and a few crew members coming up from below decks, but frowns as Calliope’s incessant tantrum catches his attention. “What did you do to her, Kate?”

“Nothing, she’s just a little cranky this morning. That’s all.”

“Give her to me,” Elliot says. Kate turns to place her in his arms and, like magic, the moment she’s nestled in and her eyes lock with Elliot’s, the giant, alligator tears rolling over her cheeks and the high piercing screams she emits, stop. She falls completely silent and simply gazes up at her uncle with a look close to wonder.

“There, see?” Elliot says proudly.

“Oh my god, you’re a miracle worker,” I tell him gratefully, and he smiles.

“Elliot Grey, baby whisperer.” He turns to Kate. “Sorry, she loves me more.”

Kate narrows her eyes. “I’ll cut you.”

“Okay, okay,” Grace says, moving up the dock and glancing longingly at her son as though she’s desperate to take my baby from him. “Let’s get going. Your father and sister are already aboard and those jet skis aren’t going to ride themselves.”

I stifle a laugh as I remember Christian’s idle threat to have the jetskis removed from the yacht after Elliot’s seventh phone call last week reminding him to have them serviced before we disembarked, and then hook my arm through Kate’s as we follow Grace and my father aboard the yacht.

It’s nice when we set sail. I don’t want Calliope out under the sun or being wind beaten and battered while we carve our way through the deep blue water towards the Strait of Juan Del Fuca, so we open the all the doors and windows to let in the cool sea air and settle down in the sitting room to visit with one another. Elliot keeps Calliope calm and quiet, swaddled in his arms, until we’re far enough off the coast that we can cut the engines and drift while my dad and Carrick throw fishing lines off the top deck and Mia, Kate, and Elliot pull out the jetskis.

“I’ll stay with her,” Grace offers when she sees me laying Calliope in her bassinet after I’ve finally rocked her to sleep. “You should go out on the jet skis too. Have some fun.”

“Oh, actually I was kind of looking forward to the peace and quiet,” I tell her. “I’ve started writing again and… I actually really like what I’ve got so far. I’ve been excited to work on it, and I don’t get a lot of time back home.”

“Another book?”

“Maybe. I don’t know… This has been a much different experience. Last time, I needed to put my thoughts and feelings on paper to work through them. This time, I just… I want Christian to know.”

“Know what?”

“The way I love him. The way he’s changed me. The way he’s made me see the entire world differently. Better. That despite everything we’ve been through, I’ve never felt closer to heaven than when I was fighting through hell with him. I don’t feel the way about him, even about what happened, as I did when I wrote Escaping Neverland. I don’t want that to be the legacy I leave behind of our love. So I’m starting over.”

“A love story.” She smiles. “I can’t wait to read it.”

“We’ll see.” I laugh, and as she nods and squeezes my shoulder, she turns to face the bassinet that contains my sleeping daughter.

“Well, what if I take Calliope in the other room to read with me? I’ll keep an eye on her while you take the afternoon to write.”

“Really? That’d be great actually. I’ll just go into the office in mine and Christian’s room. Just bring her to me when you need a break.”

“Never,” she says. I let out a soft, disbelieving laugh as I remember Calliope’s tantrum from this morning and then peel myself off the couch, kiss her gently on the forehead, and thank Grace again before disappearing back into the office inside the main cabin.

Just the way we did in the sitting room, I open all the windows and allow the salty sea air fill the room before I settle down at Christian’s desk with my laptop and begin reading through the last few pages of what I’ve already written and picking up again where I’d left off. It’s difficult to concentrate at first, the sounds of the jet skis’ motors and Kate’s and Mia’s laughter are almost a little too enticing, but I know how rare this opportunity to just sit down for an indeterminate amount of time to write now that I have my baby home with me, so I want to take full advantage of it while I can. With every ounce of self control I possess, I focus all of my attention on the blank page I have in front of me and begin to type, and while the words don’t come as readily as I wish they would, they do come, and I’m actually able to get an amount done that I’m proud of before there’s a knock on my door and Luke pokes his head inside the office.

“Ana?”

“Yeah?”

“Mr. Grey is on the phone for you.”

I glance down and see the satellite phone in his hand and frown. “Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah, he and I had a long conversation, shared our hopes and dreams, and talked all about our feelings before he asked me to speak to you, so I know exactly what this phone call is about.”

I roll my eyes. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”

He laughs as he tosses me the phone, but I wait until the door closes behind him before I answer. “Hey, baby. Are you on your way?”

“No, that’s why I’m calling. Taylor may have found something in Leila’s financial records, a paper trail. Her tuition, her apartment, her living expenses were all being paid out of an offshore account owned by a company called Limited LTD, based in Panama.”

“Panama? Wait, I thought this guy was in Seattle?”

“He is. It’s a shell corporation.”

“I don’t know what that is…”

He sighs. “It’s a company that exists only on paper. Wealthy people use them to hide assets for tax evasion purposes. You can transfer money or property through the shell company into an offshore account because the ownership of the company is tied up in a blind trust so the wealth can’t be traced back to the legitimate owner. It’s a good way to make millions of dollars in revenue look like millions of dollars of loss, or to pay people without the government being able to track it.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Because I have three myself, in Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Monaco.”

I bite my tongue to prevent myself from veering off subject at Christian’s casual admission to tax evasion, and try to sort through the things I understand of what he’s told me.

“So what does this mean? If it’s in a blind trust and we can’t trace the owner of the account, how can we use this to find out who he is?”

“We can’t. But with some help from Welch, we may be able to find out who else he’s paying to work for him and when we do, hopefully one of them can lead us to him.”

“Good,” I say, immediately feeling a tangible sense of relief as for the first time since we knew what was coming for us, it actually feels like we’ve chipped away at the perfect defense he’s put in place to shield his identity from us. “So… are you not coming, then?”

“No, I’ll be there. Just late. Welch is running code now to try and break through the securities on the account so we can trace the payments, and once he does, it’ll take him a few days to sort through the data. I just don’t want to leave until I at least know we have an access point.”

“Okay. Then I’ll see you tonight.”

“I love you, Anastasia.”

“I love you too. Bye.” I hang up the phone and glance down at the screen of my laptop in front of me again, but I don’t think I can write anymore. Now that I know Christian is making some progress at finding out who’s been after us, my concentration is shot. I don’t, however, want to sit here driving myself crazy all afternoon running through a hundred implausible scenarios of what he’s going to find, so I tidy up the desk I’ve been working at and head out to rejoin the rest of the family.

Carrick and my dad have had a great afternoon and their catches have been passed off to Christian’s chef to prepare for dinner, so I find them in the sitting room with Grace. Calliope is laid out over her favorite blanket on floor while my dad dangles a soft lamb plush toy over her, which she watches with absolute fascination.

“How has she been?” I ask, sitting next to Grace on the sofa.

“Wonderful,” she beams at me. “After I fed her, we read a little bit and then grandpa came inside to change her.”

“You’re on diaper duty, dad?” I ask with a laugh.

“I’d change a million diapers for this little girl.” He reaches down to brush the tip of his finger over her full lips but she doesn’t look away from the toy my father still holds over the top of her until she sneezes and while we all melt over the adorable sound, her face crinkles in indignation. As though she’s angry the sneeze has broken her concentration.

“Oh my god, she’s so freaking cute. She’s going to be the death of me,” I beam, and then quickly slide from the couch to the floor to play with her and my father. We lie there with her, fully engrossed in peek-a-boo and the little piggies game for much longer than should be acceptable for a room full of grown adults, until Kate, Elliot, and Mia come in looking for dinner.

“I’m just going to go change,” Kate says through chattering teeth. “I’m freezing.”

“Of course you are,” Elliot replies. “You’re soaking wet. Why did you wear a tank top under your life jacket?”

“Because… I don’t like the way the zipper feels against my skin when I’m wet.”

“You never cared before.”

“Well, I do now.” Her tone is defensive and it takes Elliot off guard. He furrows his brow at her as she turns and hurries through the exit that leads to the main cabins and then turns a questioning look on me, but I quickly glance away because I know exactly why Kate is wearing a tank top under her lifejacket, but clearly, she’s not ready for everyone else to know.

“Mom, when are we going to eat?” Mia asks.

“We’re waiting for Christian, sweetie.”

“Oh…” I interject. “I’m sorry, he called me a little while ago and he’s going to be late. We should start without him.”

“Late? Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, Taylor thinks he’s found a way to find out who’s behind all of this.”

“What?” Elliot exclaims. “Are they going after him? We should go back…”

“No, it’s not like that. They found his bank account or something and it’s all anonymous so it doesn’t tell us much but they’re hoping Welch can use it to find out who else he’s paying so we can use one of them to find out who he is.”

“Sounds like a good way to end up with more bodies…” my dad says darkly, but Elliot shakes his head.

“I honestly don’t care. These people have hurt my family and have threatened to do worse… I don’t care what happens to any of them. No matter what role they’re playing, they’re helping him, and they deserve whatever they get.”

“Elliot,” Grace says, admonishing him, but he doesn’t back down.

“Why would would you feel remorse for them after what they’ve put Ana and Christian through? After the horrible things he’s done to his own people, what do you think he has saved for Ana? For Calliope? And what if he doesn’t stop there? What if Mia is next? Or Kate? Christian has this right. We need to find this guy and stop him. By whatever means necessary.” He looks over at Luke purposefully and Luke’s subtle return nod doesn’t go unnoticed by me.

“What do you mean by whatever means necessary?” I ask. “What has Christian said?”

Neither of them answer and before I can press them, the head of the yacht staff appears in the entryway and announces dinner.

“Wonderful,” Grace says, clearly glad for the subject change. She jumps to her feet and quickly begins ushering Mia towards the dining room downstairs while my dad scoop Calliope into his arms and walks with Carrick, discussing fishing plans for the next day and where he thinks they should cast out. I remain in place, glancing uneasily between Luke and Elliot, but neither of them says anything. Elliot simply turns to follow the rest of his family and Luke comes to me, holding out his hand to help me off the floor.

“What has Christian told you to do?” I ask him, and he frowns.

“Don’t worry about it, Ana.”

“No, don’t shut me out like that, Luke. I deserve to know.”

He sighs. “You’ve said the words, Ana. He told us to stop him by any means necessary. It’s up to Taylor and I to decide what that is.”

I bite my bottom lip as he tries to turn me and lead me to the dining room with the others, but before we’re fully out of the sitting room, I stop him.

“Just… don’t do anything illegal, okay?”

“Illegal? You think what Taylor and Welch are doing right now is legal? You don’t have a problem with that.”

“No one is going to get hurt, Luke…”

“Plenty of people are going to get hurt, Ana. That’s the kind of monster we’re dealing with now. Our job is simply to make sure that you and everyone you love aren’t one of those people. That’s what I care about, that’s what your fiancé cares about, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

I hesitate, not knowing what to say. Reading between the lines, I have a good idea of what that means and the thought of it not only makes me extremely uncomfortable, it almost makes me sick. What we’re willing to do, and what we’re not willing to do is what should separate us from what he is. But I’m a soldier’s daughter. I understand that sometimes peace comes at a cost and when it comes right down to it, if it were someone I loved, I don’t know how far I’d be willing to go to keep them from being harmed. I just hope I never have to find out.

 

There’s a much more welcome sense of levity to dinner. Grace especially seems eager to direct the conversation in ways that can’t turn back to what Christian is currently dealing with and both Carrick and my father are happy to help her. We’re all just discussing plans to attend a fourth of July parade in Montesano that is honoring my father’s service, when Kate finally returns, and when I look up at her, even my mouth pops open.

She’s gotten some sun out on the water today, which not only means that her skin is glowing, but that her champagne colored hair looks a shade or two lighter and it’s tumbling softly over her shoulder in beachy waves. The long, white, billowy halter dress she’s changed into looks fantastic contrasted against the caramel tint to her skin and she’s put on just enough makeup to look fresh and natural, but also unattainably beautiful.

“Kate,” Elliot says, jumping out of his seat so quickly that it falls backwards and clunks noisily against the hardwood floor. “You look… stunning.”

“Thank you, Elliot,” she smiles radiantly, and as she moves to take her place at the table next to Mia, she glances over and winks at me. Elliot moves around the table and pulls her chair out for her and then stares down at Mia for a moment, almost as though he’s going to ask her to move, but thinks better of it and returns to his own seat.

“So, did you kids have a good time out on the water this afternoon?” Carrick asks.

“Yeah, it was a little flat,” Mia says. “But it was fun.”

“Flat?” Kate asks. “You got like a three foot swell. I thought for sure you were going in the water. I’d already turned around to come rescue you, thinking we were going to have to tow you back to the yacht for first aid, and then you just spun out and went off.”

“Kids play,” she says, waving off Kate’s concern with her hand. “I wanna go ride somewhere where the water is less stagnant. Like Chile, I hear they have swells there that can get up to 25 feet tall. Could you imagine riding through a wave tunnel like that? So awesome.”

“My sister,” Elliot says, sniffing and pretending to wipe away a very proud tear.

“That all sounds very exciting until the wave collapses on you and you’re stranded, tumbling around underwater in the middle of the ocean with that heavy machine on top of you,” Grace says. “Then what would you do?”

“That’s not going to happen, Mom.”

“Mhmm, I don’t think so.”

“You’ll be eighteen soon,” Elliot says with a smile. “Then I can take you.”

“Over Christian’s dead body,” I say with a laugh.

“He’ll probably be right there with us,” Mia says. “I know that when we go on vacation now that you two hole up or are happy to make out on the beach all day but before you came along, Christian was always up for anything. Skiing, surfing, parasailing, jet skiing… he did it all. He and I used to spend days just going up and down Hyde Park when we would go to Aspen.”

“Ah, my favorite run,” I say, rolling the shoulder I’d dislocated going down that very ski run three years ago and listening to the sickening popping sound it still makes.

“Looks like you’re really holding Christian back, Ana,” Kate says with a laugh. “I didn’t realize he used to be interesting.”

“We just need to get him back on the horse,” Elliot says. “It’s so damn difficult getting him to leave work unless Ana is literally in danger. He needs to learn how to vacation again.”

“Oh, he’ll come around now that Calliope’s arrived.”

“Especially once we get her her first set of skis,” Elliot says gleefully. “Can you imagine the look on his face the first time we take her on a run? He’ll literally have a heart attack.” He laughs, but I shake my head.

“You’ll never get to know because there’s no way Christian would ever allow it. That little girl is going to be the most overprotected child in America.”

“Which is why she has godparents,” Kate says, smiling mischievously at Elliot. “By this time next year, she’ll be out on the jet skis with us.”

“No she won’t,” he says. “We won’t be here.”

“And where will you be?” Carrick asks.

“Kayaking the inside passage,” Kate says. “It’s a five week trip from Seattle to Skagway. Elliot’s always wanted to do it. He was telling me about it on the phone the other night and he reeled me right in. We’re already planning.”

“Really?” I ask suspiciously, and she nods, but not with the implication in her expression that would tell me making plans together is anything more than two friends sharing their love of a common hobby together, and as they explain the trip more to Grace, Carrick, and my father, the more that seems to be solidified. Even when Carrick asks where they plan to sleep along the 1,500 mile journey, they explain there is plenty of storage space in the kayak for individual sized tents and sleeping bags, and not once do they crack a guilty smile or exchange secretive glances across the table. Still, I know how Kate feels about Elliot, and how Elliot feels about Kate. They’re playing it cool but if they’re having late night phone conversations and Kate’s making an effort to look the way she does for a family dinner, there might be something more going on. I don’t know why she’d hide that from me, but now, I have to find out.

“Well, sounds like a fun trip,” Carrick says. “I’ll look forward to hearing all about it.”

“Me too,” I say suspiciously, before narrowing my eyes on Kate. “Me. Too.”

After dinner we head back into the sitting room and since we haven’t heard from Christian yet, we decide to spend the evening playing some of the board games Grace brought along just in case there was a freak storm that mean we’d be stuck inside. Based on my history with Christian and what he’s told me about playing games with Elliot growing up, I pass on Monopoly and we all settle for Clue. But instead of paying attention to Colonel Mustard’s activities in the Conservatory, I try and solve the mystery of what’s going on between Elliot and Kate. They’re competitive during the game, though that’s just in their nature, but aren’t any pet names exchanged among the pointed, taunting barbs they throw at one another, and never once do I catch them locking eyes when the attention is focused elsewhere around the table. When I finally get up to put Calliope to bed though, I do notice that his hand is on her knee under the table, and his thumb moves in soft, slow circles over the fabric of her dress.

“Good night, sweet baby,” Grace coos as I reach in her arms to take my daughter. She kisses her softly on the head, and after I’ve taken her around the table and said goodnight to everyone still seated there, I head off through the open room to the stairs that lead up to the main cabin, alone.

Calliope is a little fussy as I set her down, but she falls asleep fairly quickly. I think briefly of waiting up for Christian, maybe even writing to pass the time, but I have no idea when he’s actually going to arrive and it’s already late enough that my eyelids feel heavy. With a sigh, I gently stroke the soft hair on top of my daughter’s head one last time and then crawl into the cool, crisp bedding. The waves lapping against the side of the yacht are calming, the perfect background noise to lull me off into restful sleep, but it simply won’t come. My mind is no longer occupied with what may or may not be going on between Kate and Elliot, nor with the plot holes in my new story I haven’t worked out yet, or the not so idle threats Calliope’s godparents have made about turning her into the next Evel Knievel before she’s even out of diapers. Instead, I find myself lying there in the darkness, trying to keep absolutely quiet as I listen desperately for the whir of helicopter blades through the open windows.

Today has been a wonderful respite from the stress of everything going on back home and the noise and chaos of the city, but it’s been lonely too. I’ve enjoyed having time to write but I would have rather spent that time with Christian fishing with our fathers or maybe even out on the jet skis with Kate and his siblings. This weekend is supposed to be about him and so far, he is the only part that’s missing.

As I lie there, trying not to think about the actual reasons he isn’t here, I finally do begin to drift, but I’m not able to lose myself in dreams before I’m awakened abruptly by the screeching metallic sound of the Charlie Tango’s landing gear touching down on the helipad just above me. I glance nervously over at Calliope, praying the sound hasn’t woken her too, but she sleeps soundly through the noise of the helicopter powering down and the voices that drift down through the window as Christian is welcomed by the night staff.

Excited anticipation takes grip of my stomach while I wait for his appearance and the moment he comes through the bedroom door, the tense exhaustion on his face immediately melts away in favor of delighted relief. He closes the door behind him and begins stripping out of his clothes as he stalks towards the bed and climbs over the top of me.

“Hi,” I tell him as he covers my body with his.

“Hi. I’m sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay. Did Welch get what he needed?”

“Mhm. He’s downloading the data file over night and he and Taylor will begin pouring through it tomorrow. I almost wish I’d left Sawyer behind. He’s good at this kind of thing.”

I hum in agreement and Christian leans down to take my lips with his. I feel my entire body relax as he kisses me, the warmth of his affection chasing away the loneliness that’s kept me awake half the night. Everything’s perfect now, exactly how it should be, and I can feel that contentedness with each brush of his lips against mine. Finally, our restful weekend away can really begin.

“It’s after midnight, you know,” Christian says as he pulls away. “It’s my birthday.”

“Happy Birthday,” I whisper. He smiles and shakes his head.

“No, that’s not really what I meant. It’s June 18th, officially six weeks from Calliope’s birth.”

“Oh…”

He smiles again before reclaiming my lips, but just as the tenacity of his tongue against mine begins to spark the welcome heat between my legs and his hand starts to creep beneath the t-shirt I fell asleep in, Calliope wakes and begins to cry.

And she doesn’t stop until the pink light of dawn creeps through our bedroom windows.  

Next Chapter

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