Chapter 41

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I stand silently, watching Kate pull Ros’s dress out behind her. Once she’s perfect and assured she won’t trip over the silk train of her dress, she reaches out to take Luke’s arm and they disappear through the doors down the long aisle. Elliot moves to stand in the place they’ve vacated and holds his elbow out for Kate, but she holds up a finger for him and turns back to me.

“Are you ready?”

I nod, or at least I think I do. I can’t feel anything. But she smiles at me all the same before turning back to Elliot, hooking her hand through his outstretched arm, and moving out into the gardens to the slow melody of Pachelbel’s Canon.

I wait, shaking, until the final notes from the lavish string quartet die out and I hear the first droning tones of Wagner’s traditional wedding march begin. With a breath I hope fills me with courage, I take a step forward and the eyes of hundreds of people turn to face me. Several cameras raise up into the air, pointed directly at me, waiting to catch any slip up or fall so they can feed the hungry media machine that has focused all of it’s attention on this day. Under their expectant gaze, I freeze.

I can see Christian at the end of the aisle, but he looks so far away. My knees feel weak and my body won’t stop trembling… I have no idea how I’m going to make it to him. Someone near me coughs, urging me to start walking so I lift my foot and try to pull myself forward, but I can’t. It feels as though something is holding me back, and as I struggle against whatever force is holding me in place, I realize it’s the dress. No matter how hard I struggle, I can’t seem to drag it down the aisle and as I look up at Christian, I realize he’s somehow gotten farther away.

After what feels like an eternity of me stuck in place, one of the people from the endless rows of chairs stands, and for a moment, I think they’re going to help me get down the aisle. But then another person stands, and another, and as they all begin flowing into the aisle, they surround me. Crowding me. Touching me and still moving closer and closer… I scream for them to stop, but the continue to pack into the space around me, tighter and tighter until it feels like I can’t breathe. I can no longer hear the music, I can’t see Christian, and I can’t move. I’m suffocating, and just as I think I’m going to pass out, I feel a pair of cold hands wrap around me from behind, covering my mouth so I can’t scream.

“Gotchya!”

 

I wake with a start, shaking and panting heavily to try and catch my breath. The light in the room is muted gray as the first hint of dawn creeps through the windows of mine and Christian’s bedroom, telling me the day has finally come. My wedding day. The happiest day of my life, and yet, I’m filled with dread.

I let out a long, steady breath, trying to quell my nerves as I look at the place in the bed next to me, but they’re only heightened when I find it empty. Christian, of course, isn’t supposed to be there. He stayed with his parents last night so he wouldn’t see me today until I walk down the aisle. But Kate, she should be here. She was when I fell asleep…

I peak over at the bathroom door and find there’s no light streaming out beneath it, but as the residual fear of my dream sends me into full blown panic mode, I notice that her phone and the charger next to the bed are gone, along with the bag she left against the wall. Best guess, she snuck away in the night to be with Elliot.

It isn’t a surprise. Ever since we got back from Vegas, they’ve been inseparable. Literally, as I’ve barely seen her face over the last 24 hours because it’s remained constantly attached to Elliot’s. In the span of one night, they’ve somehow let everything from the past go and instantly fallen back in love. I suppose the way I did with Christian, which just makes me feel guilty for being annoyed that she didn’t stay the whole night with me. I want to be happy for her, and I am. I want her to enjoy this time reconnecting with the man she truly loves, but right now… I need her to be here. I need my best friend to talk me down and tell me that everything is going to be wonderful today because, right now, I don’t feel like it’s going to be. But instead, I’m alone.

I glance over at Calliope, sleeping soundly in her bassinette, and then climb out of bed. I’m hoping some fresh air may help calm my nerves, so I pull my thin silk robe from the bathroom, wrap it around me, and step out onto the balcony. The morning breeze is warm and filled with the scent of the ocean from the sound, but the tranquility I find in that is dashed when I look over the metal railing at the street below and find a hoard of people already waiting on the sidewalk for me to leave Escala and make my way to Lakewood. There are lights set up in the street for reporters, which seems to be causing a traffic jam, adding to the number people surrounding me. Closing me in.

And so the circus begins.

With a huff, I turn around and storm back inside, but when I slam the door behind me, the glass quakes and the noise wakes Calliope.

“Fuck,” I hiss, then rush to her bedside. I try to calm her with sweet words as I ease her from her bed and into my arms, but she continues to scream until I carry her out to the kitchen, where we find Gail making coffee.

“Oh, Ana! It’s here, it really finally here!” she cries when she looks up and sees me holding my screaming baby. I try to smile, but I think it’s more of a grimace. Thankfully, my lack of response goes unnoticed because she turns to pull some stored breast milk from the refrigerator to heat up, and Luke comes up along the side of the counter. He looks exhausted as he brushes his hand over Calliope’s head and then moves to pour himself a mug of coffee.

“How are you feeling this morning?” he yawns.

“Anxious. Are you okay? You look beat.”

He yawns and nods again. “I’ve been up for a few hours helping Taylor coordinate everything for the wedding. The whole team’s on it to make sure we don’t have any surprises, and… there’s just a lot of moving pieces. I just got off a call with your groom to go over the plan for today.”

“Thank you, Luke,” I say gratefully. “For everything. You’re the best bridesman a girl could ask for.” He chuckles and then leans over to kiss me on the cheek.

“They’ll be here soon to start on your hair and makeup. Until then, I’ll be in Taylor’s office if you need me.”

I smile as he pulls away, and then reach across the counter to take the bottle Gail has prepared for Calliope.

“Can I fix you anything to eat, dear?” she asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t think I can eat…”

“I’ll get you some fruit. It’s too big of a day to go through on an empty stomach.” She beams at me again before turning for the fridge and I carry Calliope over to the sofa and flip on the news to watch while I feed her. The newscasters are just changing segments from the weather, which promises to be another perfect summer day, to their top story, coverage of the Grey Wedding. My stomach clenches as a voiceover guides me through my entire past, including interviews with several people from Montesano who give insights to the person I was growing up. As they talk about my acceptance to Harvard, the narrative changes to my relationship with Christian, and the countless headlines that have followed us over the past year, including clips from the interview we did last summer. They splash pictures from our engagement announcement across the screen, along with video clips from the GEH gala we attended on New Year’s Eve, then breeze through the kidnapping attempt to talk about my dramatic delivery.

The segment ends with a statement provided by Christian, which is put up on the screen while the voiceover reads it aloud, and then we go to a live feed from Thornewood Castle, where the on-site reporter gives in depth details about everything they know. My dress. The cake. The flowers. The guest list, which includes Seattle’s most notable names. There’s a countdown clock in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, ticking away the hours left until the ceremony begins, and for some reason, it feels like I’m watching on a bomb that’s going to detonate and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Bile rises into my throat while I watch the live feed of Kommer and Ryan stopping a van trying to enter the gates, checking their credentials before waving them through, but just as I fear I’m going to have to run from the couch to throw up, the elevator pings behind me.

I swivel around, hoping it’s Kate, but it isn’t. Still, I feel an equal sense of comfort and relief when I see my father walking towards me. He’s already dressed in the handsome black jacket and blue slacks that make up his military dress uniform and I smile at him as he hands me a to-go cup of hot tea from my favorite coffee shop around the corner.

“Thank you, Daddy.”

“Of course, sweetheart. I don’t get to do much today, the least I can do is comfort you the best way I know how. How’re your feet? Toasty warm?”

I suck my bottom lip into my mouth and shake my head. “No. I think I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. I don’t know if this is normal nerves or not, but I feel like I’m going to fall apart. Daddy… I don’t know how I’m going to do this.”

He laughs. “The morning I married your mother, I forgot how to put socks on. I spent twenty minutes staring at them like I’d never seen a sock in my life. It’s perfectly natural to be nervous, baby girl. This is a big day. Your whole life is going to change. But this is what you want, right?”

“Yeah,” I reply hesitantly, trying to hide my shaking hands in Calliope’s blankets. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s just nerves.”

He takes a deep breath and puts an arm around me. “Can I ask you something uncomfortable?”

I look up at him, waiting for him to ask me if I’m having doubts about spending the rest of my life with Christian. Thankfully, that is the one thing about today I am absolutely sure I about. If I could some how make everything about this wedding disappear except for the two of us, I’d be fine. Elated even. It’s everything else that has my stomach churning.

“Are you maybe regretting your decision not to invite your mother?” he asks.

I’m taken aback for a moment, surprised by the question, then scoff. “No. Absolutely not. After what she did to Christian, for she put him through… I want nothing to do with her.”

“She called me this morning.”

“I’m sorry.” My tone is blunt and it makes him frown.

“She wanted me to wish you luck, and tell you that she loves you. She calls me a lot now to ask about you, and Calliope. She really misses you, Ana.”

“Well, she should have thought about that before she tried to ruin the lives of everyone I love. I don’t trust her, Dad. She lost that, and I have no room for people in my life who I can’t trust.”

He nods and grips my arm with the hand still draped over me. “That’s fair. I get it, Annie. I know why you’re angry and I respect your decision to keep your distance. I just want you to know that if a time ever comes when you’re not angry anymore, or you miss your mom, she’s waiting for your call. She’d pick up now if she’s the one you really need to talk to…”

“No. I have nothing to say to her.” I feel a dry sting in my throat that precedes tears, but I quickly swallow to push it down. I’m having enough anxiety today without worrying about my mom.

“Ana,” Luke calls from the foyer. I turn and watch him punching the code into the elevator keypad that will unlock it for anyone who doesn’t have a master code. “Your beauty crew or glam squad or whatever ridiculous word Kate uses is here.”

“Thanks, Luke.”

“Here,” my dad says. “I’ll take the baby. You just relax and enjoy what you can of this day, okay? It’s just one day, baby. And then, you have forever.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” I hug him, and then shift Calliope into his arms before taking a long pull of my tea and getting off the couch to meet the team of people hired to make me beautiful.

 

It feels as though everything turns to chaos the moment the wedding preparations begin. Between being pulled this way and that way, poked and prodded, baked under hot rollers, and choked over too much hairspray, my phone starts ringing off the hook. My dad and Luke try to field most of the calls coming in, but there’s only so much they can do without my approval. They’re not comfortable making hard, fast decisions for me, the way Kate would, and while my make-up artist begins painting over my face, I find myself desperate to have her here with me again.

Where is she?

While I’m having my nails done, the only thing I have to listen to is the panicked buzzing of everyone around me or the continued coverage of my wedding on the TV, both of which just cause my anxiety to mount even higher. My mouth feels dry, my entire body is tingling, and I can’t seem to form coherent thoughts or focus on any one thing with real clarity. Anytime anyone comes to speak to me, it feels as though they’re talking at me, in another language, and while I’m trying to decipher what the woman doing my nails is asking me, there’s a sudden flurry of movement behind me, towards the window.

I turn and see a K5 news helicopter circling the building. There’s a camera pointed directly at our apartment so Luke instructs anyone with free hands to bring in the decorative screens form the billiard room to hide any view of me getting ready from the windows. I lower my head into my arms over the table where my nails are drying but until I’m fully shielded again, it feels as though I’m stuck inside a glass fishbowl and the walls are closing in around me. While the strange tingling sensation increases throughout my entire body, I wonder if this is what it feels like before you have a heart attack.

Finally, when I get out of my chair and one of the stylists starts placing flower pins into my hair, I’m alerted to the sound of the elevator and I turn to see Kate walking through the foyer, followed by Grace and Mia, all carrying their dress bags.

“Oh my god, Ana!” Kate cries, skipping across the great room. “You look so beautiful!”

I gawk at her. “Where were you?”

“Oh, um… Elliot and I–”

I shake my head, and her words cut off. “Katie, I-I…”

“Miss Steele?” It’s our photographer, and he gestures with his head to Kate, Mia, and Grace. “We’re running a little behind schedule. If I could have the three of you change so we can get some pictures?”

“Oh…”

Kate beams and takes me by the hand, pulling me back towards the bedroom where Luke has left my dress. But as I’m lead through the halls, I feel almost as though I’m in a daze. I think I may have missed my opportunity to have a real one-on-one with Kate this morning and I really needed it. This isn’t normal nerves, I can’t trick myself into believing that no matter what the people around me say. And now, not even having Kate with me is making me feel better. I’m too deep into this. Or maybe my best friend just isn’t enough right now.

I need Christian.

If I could just see him for one minute, have him hold me, and remind me what I’m doing all of this for, I could be okay. I’ll be fine. I just need to see him.

“Okay,” Kate says once we’re in the bedroom. “Mia, will you help me with Ana’s dress please?”

“No, wait!” I stop her. “Kate, can you call Christian for me and ask him to come here? I need to see him for a second.”

“Ana, he can’t see you before the wedding!” she chirps, still too overly excited and happy to really read my current panic.

I shake my head. “No, Kate, please. Call him. Right now. Please call him.”

That makes her take notice, and I watch the worry slowly spread across her face. “Ana he’s… he’s already gone. He went to the venue early, he’s there waiting for you.”

My stomach clenches, and I feel winded. I place my hand over my chest, trying to calm my racing heart, and she wraps an arm around me.

“We’ll be there soon. We’ll get you in your dress, take some pictures, and be on our way. You can see him once we get there, okay?”

I nod, but don’t feel the conviction behind the sentiment. “Fine, I just need a second, okay? You just… get dressed first. Please.”

“Okay.”

Grace takes her dress upstairs to change, which I expect is partially because she’s secretly searching for Calliope, but both Kate and Mia strip down right in the middle of my bedroom and pull their dresses from their respective bags.

I didn’t get to be there for Kate’s final fitting so I’m initially much more concerned with her dress. It’s long, made of fine shimmery silver silk that catches the light beautifully, and thankfully the fit is perfect. It hugs her body in a way that reminds me of my original wedding dress. She looks perfect, so I turn to examine Mia.

She’s not a bridesmaid, but as family, Christian wanted her to have something special to wear as well. Her dress, also silver, is a much more simple silhouette than Kate’s, but as I watch her change, it’s not the dress that catches my attention. In her side, just below her ribs but stretching all the way down to her hip bone, is a cascade of very notable deep red lines.

Suddenly, the fog of my anxiety is pushed aside and I’m able to think clearly for the first time today. I leap from my chair and reach Mia in two long strides, then yank the dress back down around her waist and lean in to examine her body. From this close, I can see that the lines in her skin aren’t just from clothes pressing too tightly into her body and leaving marks or even scrapes.

Cutting. It’s definitely cutting.

“Amelia, what is this?”I breathe in shock.

“Uh, n-nothing,” she stutters, hurriedly trying to cover herself with the dress again. Kate walks over to see what the fuss is about and when she lays eyes over unhealed slits in Mia’s skin, her mouth falls open in disbelief.

“Mia…”

“What is this, Mia?” I demand. “Did you do this to yourself?”

“No, it’s just a scratch. I fell during rehearsal, it’s nothing.”

“This is not a scratch, they’re perfect lines. This was done on purpose, with a razor blade. You did this, didn’t you? Why would you do this?” She doesn’t answer, so I turn her towards me, forcing her to look into my eyes, and grip her tightly by the arms. “Mia, what is going on with you?”

“It’s nothing, Ana.”

“Mia…”

“It’s nothing! I’m fine!” She worms out of my grip, letting her dress fall to the floor, then sprints into the bathroom and locks the door closed behind her. I mash my lips together and storm after her, pounding my fists against the door.

“Amelia Grey, open this door right now.” She doesn’t answer. “So help me, Mia, I will have Luke come in here and take this door off the fucking hinges, open the goddamn door!”

“Easy there, Christian…” Kate scolds me, coming up behind me and placing a hand on my shoulder. “You know you’re not going to get anywhere if you yell at her. She doesn’t respond to that”  I take a breath, push down the surface anger, and gently rest my head against the door.

“Mia, come out please,” Kate tries, but even with her soft, encouraging tone, the door remains closed.

“Mia… I’m sorry for screaming at you,” I tell her. “You just mean so much to me. I love you very much, like my own sister, and I just want to know what’s going with you so I can help you. I know something is wrong. I’ve seen a change in you since I’ve been home, a big one. You’ve been acting out, taking risks you know you shouldn’t, putting yourself in harm’s way, avoiding your family… It was all fun and games when it was jet skis and jumping over the side of yachts, but ditching security in Vegas and now hurting yourself is taking this to a dangerous level. I think you’re crying out for help and I want you to know that I can hear you, and I can see you. I’m here, Mia, and you know that I love you and I would do anything for you. I want to help. Please, just open the door and talk to me.”

I wait for a beat of silence, and then the door opens. She stands there in the open doorway with tears rushing down her face, then throws herself into my arms. I catch her and hold her tightly against me, dragging my hand softly over her back as I rock her back and forth.

“Why are you cutting yourself, Mia?” I ask again.

“To punish myself,” she sobs. “I deserve it, Ana. I hate myself.”

“I don’t know how you could.” I pull her back. “Not with how much we all love you. Tell me what happened.”

“Everything is my fault. If I hadn’t been so selfish last year and never agreed to work for Elena, none of this would have ever happened. If I would have never ran away, if you hadn’t found me, if no one ever found out… it’s all my fault, Ana.” She covers her body again, her hands shaking, and breaks down into tears again. “So many people have been hurt, and it’s all my fault.”

“Mia, no…” I pull her into me as she sobs. “Hey, stop. You’re not a bad person. You got caught up in something too big for you, and you made bad choice, but no one was hurt because of you. You did the right thing when you told the truth, I promise.”

“No… I really didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.” I can hear the plea in my voice as I will her to believe me, but it doesn’t have any effect on her. I hadn’t realized how much what happened last summer affected her, she’s been so well composed… but as I think through the last few months, I realize that might not be true. We’ve all just been so distracted by what’s going on in our own lives. My pregnancy, Carrick’s cancer, the omnipresent threat of whoever is after us, it’s all overshadowed her. Hell, now that I think about it, I think she even tried to reach out to me. Back when she tried to tell me about how much losing Kate as someone to talk to had devastated her. She needed to talk, and instead of just filling that space and right then and there telling her that I was there for her, I just tried to reassure her about her place in Kate’s life. I let her down. We all did.

“Jesus, I’m so sorry, Mia. I didn’t realize how much what happened traumatized you. But of course it did. You were attacked, violated… I know better than anyone what that feels like. We should have put you in therapy. I don’t know why we… Fuck, I’m so sorry, Mia. We will, okay? Once the wedding is over, we’re going to get you some help, someone to talk to. You’re not alone. You’re not a bad person. We love you. You know that, right?”

She bites her lip and shrugs, so I reach up and brush a tear away from her cheek.

“I do. I really do.”

“I love you too, Ana,” she says. “I’m sorry I’m ruining your day too.”

“Are we ready?” We all turn and watch Grace breeze into the room, but when I release Mia and turn towards her, her eyes too fall on the marks in Mia’s skin, and, as she realizes what they are, her face goes from rosy, to white, then to green.

“Oh my god, Mia…”

I stand aside and let Grace come examine her daughter. She’s a doctor, so she should know how best to deal with this. We can talk later about what she’s said to me and getting her in therapy. Christian will make sure that happens as soon as possible. Hell, maybe even tonight…

As Grace takes Mia out of the room so they can talk, Kate pulls me back to my dress. But while I look at it, hanging there, I immediately feel my muscles tighten again, the anxiety doubled now because of my added guilt over Mia. Fuck, how did this all become such a mess.

“Ana?” Kate says, trying to get my attention. I turn to look at her, and she brushes a tear away from my cheek that I didn’t even know was there. “Mia’s going to be fine, you don’t have to worry about her right now. It’s your wedding day. Let’s get you ready, okay?”

“Okay,” I breathe.

I stand as still as possible as Kate ties me first into the corset, then the multiple layers of petticoats. As she ruffles the skirts, I close my eyes and try desperately to escape to my happy place. Somewhere where there’s no media frenzie, or gigantic over the top wedding, or crazed psychos who could jump out of the shadows at anytime and send this all crashing to the ground… The bedroom on the yacht with a cool ocean breeze floating in through the open windows, the suite at the Fairmont Olympic where Christian and I spent Valentine’s Day, a cozy bed and breakfast tucked away in the snowy forest of Vermont. All places where it’s just Christian and I. Alone.

Imagining each place help immensely to calm my racing heart, until Kate asks me to lift my arms, and I feel the weight of the dress as she slides it over me. Once the buttons are all done up in the back and Kate steps away to admire the full picture, something inside of me feels as though it breaks and I lose all pretense of holding it together.

It’s like I suddenly can’t breath. The weight of the dress is crushing me, suffocating me, pulling me back into my nightmare from last night. My skin feels like it’s on fire, like I’m burning alive inside the dress, and I can’t take it.

“It’s perfect, Ana,” Kate smiles. “You look-”

“Take it off,” I cry out.

“What?”

My hands reach back for the buttons but I’m too panicked to summon the dexterity necessary to get the dress off. “I can’t breathe, please take it off. Take it off. Get it off of me!”

Kate moves as quickly as possible and starts to undo all of the buttons while I break down into tears. When it’s finally unfastened and pools into a cloud of lace and silk at my feet, I crumple to the floor and sob.

“Ana… you’re shaking. What’s wrong?”

“I can’t do this, Kate. I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.” I bury my hands in my face as I cry and Kate wraps her arms around me. “What do I do? Help me, Kate, please. You have to tell me what to do. This isn’t what I want. It’s too much, this is all too much. I don’t want the castle or the gardens or the grand ballrooms. I don’t want to pose and smile for the media and I don’t want to have hundreds of people I don’t even know staring at me while I vow to spend the rest of my life with the man I love. I can’t do this!” I collapse into her and my entire body shakes as the gut wrenching sobs work their way out of me.

“Then don’t…” she whispers at last.

“Don’t?” I repeat, looking up at her with confusion.

“Don’t. You don’t have to do this, Ana. It’s not supposed to be like this. You’re not supposed to feel like this on your wedding day. I mean, look at you.” She swallows. “Is it just the wedding?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just want to be sure that it’s the wedding… that you’re not changing your mind. About… Christian.”   

I shake my head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Kate.”

“Okay, this is easy then. We just forget about the wedding and we do this a different way.”

“I can’t just leave him at the alter. I could never do that to him.”

“Then what do you want to do?”

“I want to marry him.”

I take several deep breaths, letting each of them out in slow, controlled gusts, and then reach for the dress again. But as I try to pull it up over my body, I start to hyperventilate.

“Okay, no. We’re not doing this,” Kate says, and she starts tearing out the ribbon on the back of my corset. Once I’m completely stripped down, she goes to my dresser, pulls out a pair of sweatpants and Christian’s Harvard t-shirt, and tosses them to me.

“We’re going to go on a drive. Get away from the crowds and the media and everything to do with the wedding. When you’re ready and only when you’re ready, we’ll get you married.”

“Okay,” I agree. I start to get dressed and Kate calls Luke into the room so he can put Calliope in her carseat while she makes sure we have everything else we need. There are several protests from everyone in my apartment as Luke and Kate lead me through the great room, but they’re ignored and even the small amount of control I feel just being able to say no to someone feels liberating. Though perhaps not as much as the elevator doors closing and drowning out all of the noise behind us.

Thankfully, with the Rolls Royce Phantom Christian reserved to take me to Thornewood waiting out front, none of the photographers are watching the garage. We decide to take Luke’s car, as it’s less recognizable than either mine or Kate’s, and once Calliope and I are covered in the backseat, Luke is able to sneak us out undetected and drive off towards the highway.

I stay down as long as possible, which ends up being all the way to Edmonds, where, to my surprise, we board a ferry. Once we’re aboard, Luke takes Calliope to walk her around the deck while Kate moves me to the front seat and tries to fix the damage I did to my hair and makeup during my breakdown. Thankfully, she’s as good as she is because when I saw myself in the mirror for the first time after we stopped, I thought there was nothing that could be done. Once she’s finished though, I’m as good as new. If I can just find a sense of peace about this whole thing, then once we get back to Lakewood, I should be able to just slide into my dress and make my way down the aisle, no one the wiser of our little detour. However, right now, that still seems like a big if.

“Distract me, please. Talk to me about work or Elliot or something.”

“Okay, um… well, he knows about the surgery.”

“What?”

“Yeah, when had sex in Vegas, he saw the scar. I tried to play it off as a souvenir from that ski accident Christian told your family that I got in, but he spent too much time taking care of Carrick last spring to fall for that. He knew right away.”

“Oh my god, what did he say?”

“A lot. He had like… a full on breakdown over it. He said he couldn’t believe that I would do that for his family when I didn’t have to, when we weren’t even together anymore. He said if he would have known, things would have been a lot different and he wouldn’t have been with Gia as long as he was, but I told that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid. I wanted him to be with me because he loves me, not because he felt obligated. And then he told me that he never stopped loving me and he never would. He promised that he was in this for good and… I believe him. It’s not a marriage proposal but it’s a promise for forever. And in the end, that’s all I ever wanted from him. Forever.”

I nod. “If that’s what’s going to make you happy, then I’m happy for you.”

She smiles and then looks up while a disembodied voice announces our arrival in Kingston just as Luke appears around the other side of the car and begins to put Calliope back in her carseat.

I take a deep breath and look at Kate again. “So, are you going to tell the rest of the Greys?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But today is about you, and your dream coming true. It’s your day, Ana, now sit back, relax, and just remember that in just a few short hours, you’re going to be Mrs. Christian Grey and the two of you are going to live happily ever after.”

I smile. “Thank you, Kate.”

 

For the most part, we drive in silence. I think it’s because Luke and Kate are trying to give me the opportunity to give myself a little pep talk in the back seat, but what it really affords me is the chance to stare at Calliope and play with her in her car seat. Nothing has been more reassuring up to this point and I think that’s it’s because the eyes that stare up at me in wonder are also Christian’s eyes. Finally, through our daughter, I feel some kind of connection to him, and the love I feel as I stare down at her and kiss her cheeks and play with her tiny little fingers is exactly the reminder I needed. Just one moment to feel the love that is worth everything in the world to me.

We’re on the 101 North, which loops all the way around the peninsula, so I assume that’s the plan to get us back to the wedding venue. I even have a passing thought that I may be able to draw the final bit of strength and confidence I need when we drive past Montesano, but as we reach the curve in the road that will start to take us south through Forks and down along the Pacific coast, Luke makes an unexpected right turn.

“Wait, where are we going?” I ask. “You need to go south…”

“We’ll get you to your wedding, Ana,” Kate assures me from the front seat. “There’s just something you should see first. Something to put all of this into perspective for you.”

“Um, Kate… I’m sure whatever you have planned is great, but we’re going to be late. We barely have enough time to make it there as it is…”

“Don’t worry,” Luke says. “They’ll wait for you. It’s not like the wedding can go on without you.”

I frown and look up at the passing road sign. The longest possible town is only 35 miles away, which makes sense as we should be hitting the ocean soon, so I decide to just text Christian and let him know that I’m on my way. Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of the forest so I don’t have any service, and that doesn’t improve when we start winding along the coast, so I never get the chance.

The speed limit slows as we drive through each tiny little fishing town along the way, and everytime I look at the clock, I feel my nerves spike again. Over and over, I tell them that I’m fine, I’m ready, and that we should turn around and head back, but they remain silent.

“Okay, I get it!” I tell them as we pull into Neah Bay. “You’re trying to make me think we’re going to miss the wedding to put it in perspective that I do actually want to go through with this. Job well done. I don’t want to miss my wedding, so can we please turn around?”

“Not quite,” Kate says. I let out a frustrated huff as we, but as we reach the end of the town, I see there is a roadblock set up, with a sign that forbids through traffic. For the first time in my life, I think I’m actually grateful for road construction.

We come to a stop and an officer climbs out of a parked cruiser and approaches our car. “I’m sorry, the Cape Flattery vantage point is closed to tourists today. Only authorized personnel are allowed past this point.”

Luke reaches into his back pocket, pulls out his wallet, and hands the officer both his state ID and his GEH security badge. “I’ve got Anastasia Steele in the car,” he says.

The officer peers back at me, looks down at the carseat on my left, then hands Luke his IDs back and waves us forward. I turn to look back at him as we drive up the long winding hill, utterly confused, and then turn to Kate.

“What’s going on?”

Kate smiles. “You’ll see.”

I stare anxiously through the windows as we twist our way up the mountain, but the only thing I can see is trees. My brain wars between worrying over the clock ticking down the hours to my wedding and my need to know what the heck is going on, but just as I think I’m not going to be able to take not knowing anymore, we turn a corner to a long straight, and I see Charlie Tango resting silently at the end of a huge parking area, surrounded by only a few cars that look to belong to unnamed business. My eyes widen as I get a better look around and see that there are white gossamer bows tied around the trees surrounding us, and a carpet of white rose petals covering the path the leads into the trees.

“What in the world?” I whisper, as we finally come to a stop. “No. No, he didn’t…”

Kate turns around and grins at me.

“I didn’t know until this morning,” she says. “That’s why I wasn’t there when you woke up. Christian called the whole family together and told them that the wedding in Lakewood was just a ploy to draw the attention of the media and anyone else who may want to ruin your big day. He wanted to actually give you the intimate wedding you wanted. Your dress is here, your real dress, and you and Christian are getting married by the sea. Just you two and the family.”

“I didn’t know either,” Luke adds quickly, and he sounds almost miffed. “Grey and Taylor didn’t tell anyone. Not until this morning. He didn’t want to take any chance of his real plans being leaked. This actually may have been one of the most closely guarded secrets in the history of weddings.”

My hand flies up to cover my shock and the uncontrollable smile it brings. For an entirely different reason than this morning, I feel like I can’t move. That is, until Taylor appears and comes around the car to open my door for me.

“Miss Steele,” he greets me, with a smile. I take his outstretched hand, allowing him to help me out of the car, and then he does something he’s never done before. Taylor pulls me against him and gives me a long, affectionate hug. “You look beautiful, Ana. He’s going to lose it when he sees you.”

“Thank you, Taylor,” I reply, turning my head to kiss him on the cheek. He smiles and then bends down to look in the car.

“If it’s okay with you, Mr. Grey asked me to bring Calliope to him.”

“He called me at least six times last night to check in on her,” Luke adds. “That man sure loves that baby.”

I smile, tears swimming in my eyes and nod. Taylor reaches into the backseat and takes Calliope’s car seat while I turn and grasp tightly to Kate’s hand, following her and Luke down the ¼ mile long, rose strewn path that leads us to the water.

The moment I see the view, I’m flabbergasted. It is without a doubt one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. Christian has flown me over this place before, but the view from this vantage point is something else entirely. Giant monoliths jet out of the water, causing the sea to spray around them as the tide rolls into the cape. The sea sparkles under the summer sun, and besides the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and seagulls flying out into the horizon, it’s silent. It’s completely and absolutely stunning, and when a photographer approaches me outside the tent where I’m meant to change, I gladly pull Kate into my side and take several photos.

Getting ready on the edge of the cape is a different experience entirely. Christian has thought of every detail, and the tent I wait in for the ceremony to start is both lavish and romantic, with candles and rose petals. He’s even left a handwritten note for me inside that tells me he can’t wait to finally see me.

As the rest of the family arrives, overjoyed that I’m now in on the secret with them, I begin to feel the excitement you’re supposed to feel before your wedding. Grace and Kate help me slip on my perfect wedding dress, and once it’s fastened into place, I can’t stop smiling at my reflection. Kate undoes the over complicated updo that my stylist put together this morning, and allows my hair to fall loose around my shoulder in soft round curls. The bouquet that I’m intended to carry down the aisle is comprised of pink peonies, which, although they’re my favorite, I had forgone for the other wedding because they didn’t fit with the color scheme. Everything is perfect, and when Carrick, who I’m told is going to marry us thanks to an online certification, pokes his head and says they’re ready, I feel butterflies.

The good kind.

My father takes my hand and places it on the inside of his elbow while Luke and Ros make their way down the aisle first, then we wait several more seconds for Kate and Elliot follow after them. When we’re alone, he takes a deep breath and turns to look at me.

“You’ll forgive me if I can’t say the words when Carrick asks me to give you away?” he checks. I smile and lean up to kiss him softly on the corner of his mouth.

“You’re not giving anything away, Daddy. I’ll always be your little girl.”

He nods and then takes a deep breath before leaning down to kiss me on the forehead. “I love you, Annie. Always have. Always will.” His hand tightens around my arms, and slowly, we make our way out of the tent.

It’s a long aisle made up of a planked wooden walkway over the flora of the forest floor. I find myself glad that I have my father to cling to and that his grip is steady and sure, because I wobble several times as we wind our way closer to the edge of the cliffs that overlook the tumultuous sea below. It helps when I focus on the music playing from just the other side of the treeline, but as I listen to the angelic voice singing in French along with the soft notes of a piano, I realize I recognize it. It’s the singer we heard during the service at Notre Dame in Paris, the one I was so enraptured with, and as we make the last turn which finally brings me to the end of the aisle that will lead me to Christian, I feel tears well in my eyes.

He’s standing there in a pristine charcoal suit, Elliot and Ros at his side, looking more handsome than I have ever seen him. The moment he lays eyes on me, his face breaks into a breathtaking smile, but as I begin walking towards him he covers his lips and looks at the ground. It’s only for a brief second, but when he looks up at me again, he too has tears in his eyes.

There’s no one else in this moment, only the two of us, and as I walk to the much too slow beat of the music playing around us, my father’s arm no longer feels supportive. It feels as though it’s holding me back, keeping me from sprinting to Christian and being enveloped in his arms, where I know I belong.

At the end of the aisle, we stop several paces before we reach Christian and while we wait for the music to end, he never takes his eyes off me.

“Who gives this woman to be wed to this man?” Carrick asks.

“I do,” my father replies, and then he lifts my hand, kisses it, and then places it gently in Christian’s. I smile back at him as he takes a seat next to Grace, and then turn to face the man I love. Unexpectedly, he leans forward and kisses me.

“You have to wait for that part, Christian,” Elliot says, nudging him from behind, but Christian simply smiles and shakes his head.

“I’m not sorry.”

My face breaks into a huge smile, and then we both turn to face his father.

Carrick’s words are not traditional. They speak to the love he has witnessed grow between us throughout the years and the people he has watched us become as a result having one another. I can hear Kate crying next to me, and Grace from her place just behind us, but I try not to focus on it so I don’t break down myself. Instead, I take a breath and prepare to say my vows.

“My life seems to have always been consumed by stories and I’ve always been drawn to fairy tales and the great romances. I didn’t know it when I was young, or even really when I left for Harvard and stepped into the world alone for the first time, but from the moment I read my very first love story, I started looking for you. You are my Mr. Darcy, my Rhett Butler, my Prince Charming, and yet, you’re still so much more. You’ve told me again and again that you want to make all of my dreams come true, and today, you’ve done just that. Because you are my dream, Christian Grey. You are the answer to every one of my prayers, and my hopes and my desires. I love you in a way that I didn’t know was possible before I knew you, because before you, I didn’t know what love was. From this day forward, I vow to give you all of my heart. I promise that I walk with you hand and hand, never straying from your side, wherever our journey leads us. I will never give your reason to doubt my commitment to you, to our family, and to the love you have placed in me. Because I love you, Christian, and I always will.”

He smiles as Carrick turns.

“Christian?”

“Anastasia, I don’t know if I can put into words what you have done for me. You were the very first person in my life who saw the best in me when they didn’t have to and with motive. You were the first person who made me feel like I was worth more than a good family name or the sum of what I’d survived. When you opened your heart to me, you showed me what it meant to truly love. When you stood by my side through everything we’ve been through, you showed me what it meant to be strong. And when you made me a father, you showed me what it meant to be man. I’ll never be able to repay the things that you have given me, but I promise that I will never stop trying. You are simply the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. For everything I have, your love is what I cherish and hold to be most valuable. Everything that I am and that I hope to be is because of you. Before I knew you, I had goals and aspirations for what I wanted in my life but you, you taught me how to dream. And now, every dream that I possess begins and ends with you. You give me purpose, Ana, and I vow to you today that I will love you, cherish you, remain faithful to you, and care for you, every day, until my last day.”

I fight the tears welling in my eyes as best I can, but it’s no use. They roll over my cheeks and as I reach up to wipe them away, Carrick speaks again.

“Do we have the rings?”

“Yes,” Kate sniffs, and she pulls the simple platinum band I chose for Christian from her thumb and hands it to me. Christian turns as well and takes my wedding band from Elliot.

“Do you, Anastasia Rose Steele, take Christian to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”

“Yes,” I breathe. “I mean, I do.”

There’s a low murmur of laughter behind me as Carrick turns to Christian.

“And do you, Christian Trevelyan-Grey, take Anastasia to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.” His voice rings clear and certain through the space between, and my smile widens so much my cheeks start to hurt.

“Then please take each other’s hands, place your ring upon the other’s finger, and make your commitment to one another.”

I take Christian’s hand and do as I’m instructed. “With this ring,” I tell him, holding his gaze. “I thee wed.”

“With this ring,” he repeats. “I thee wed.”

“Then, by the power invested in me,” Carrick says. “I now pronounce you, husband and wife. Christian, you may now kiss your bride.”

He lunges at me, taking my face in either of his hands as his lips come crashing down on mine. He holds me there for a long time and I can feel the happiness and the love radiating from his kiss. I never want it to end, but it has to, and when we finally pull apart, I can’t stop smiling.

Just like that, he’s my husband.

Each member of our family comes to hug both Christian and I in turn and then we pose for several pictures against the ocean backdrop before my husband takes me by hand and leads me back up the long path where the limo I think must have brought Grace, Mia, Carrick, Elliot, and my father, waits for us.

Elliot pops a bottle of champagne in the back seat of the limo, which we drink all the way back to Neah Bay, where I’m surprised once again to find the yacht docked in the harbor. There’s laughter all around us as we climb the boarding dock and make our way up to the main deck, and while we set sail into the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards Seattle, I’m floored by the beautiful reception that waits for us there.

There’s no head table or separate seating for our guests, we’re simply seated around the long dining table, together as a family. The caterers file into the dining room and lay an amazing meal of filet mignon, wild mushrooms, and rice in front of us, and as we eat, Kate and Elliot stand to give their toasts.

Kate, of course, makes me cry as she talks about soul mates and how unbelievably happy she is to have watched us grow together in love throughout the years. Elliot mostly makes jokes at Christian’s expense, but then floors everyone when he takes a moment to seriously express his feelings for the both of us and how the love we have shared has not only touched every single person seated around the table, but how it’s changed each of their lives.

After Christian hugs his brother, and both Grace and I have gotten the resulting tears under control, we turn our attention to Carrick. One by one, everyone gives a toast, some tearful, others that make us laugh. There’s so much love shared around this table and as each person gets up to speak, it becomes something palpable. Now that Kate and Elliot are back together, this family really does feel complete, and as we finish our dinner, I feel the joy in that sentiment radiating through me.

“Shall we have our first dance?” Christian asks. I smile and get up from the table with him. The singer from our wedding comes out to stand next to band set up outside, and after a quick nod from Christian, the music begins to play and she belts out the powerful notes of Etta James’s At Last.

“This night is perfect,” I say, resting my head against Christian’s chest as we sway together under the twinkle lights on the outdoor deck.

“A perfect night with my wife,” he replies, emphasising the word wife with a distinct note of both pride and pleasure. I lean up on my toes to kiss him and then allow him to sweep me around through the cool sea air.

The festivities continue all the way back to Seattle. I share an emotional dance with my father to Heartland’s I Loved Her First, and then Christian pulls his mother onto the dance floor. She’s already in tears as he puts his arms around her, but then the beginning notes to Uptown Girl by Billy Joel start and her face breaks into a huge smile. He smiles back at her, and then backs away, starting a ridiculous dance that I feel must be choreographed, despite how sloppy and silly it is, because Grace starts right after him. I giggle into my hand, especially when Grace grabs Elliot and Mia and pulls them up with them and they all jump and dance around, everyone but Mia looking extraordinarily ungraceful. We dance all night, Christian even sways for an entire song with Calliope in his arms, and as we finally pull through the sound, I feel as though I might actually be floating on cloud nine.

There are a fleet of cars waiting for us at the Marina when we finally get back home, and Christian and I hug and kiss everyone goodbye, thanking them for sharing this amazing day with us, before we head to our own car to make our way back to Escala so we can continue celebrating alone. As we approach the black SUV at the front of the line though, Ryan and Kommer step out and suddenly, Christian looks very serious.

“Well?”

“Nothing, sir,” Kommer says. “There were no gifts left, no threats made, no staff or guests out of place. Miss Steele’s intended dressing room remained locked, and the security footage showed no attempts to get inside. As best we can tell, everything went exactly as according to plan.”

“Nothing?” Christian repeats in angry disbelief. “Jesus, what the fuck is he waiting for?”

“I don’t know, sir, but we have one positive development.”

“We do?”

Ryan nods. “Yes, sir. But it’s best we keep it underwraps. If you’ll just step into the car.”

Christian narrows his eyes suspiciously but takes my hand and pulls me into the back of the SUV after him. When I get a look at the person already inside waiting for us though, my confusion only deepens.

“Carter?”

“Hey, Ana. Christian,” he says nervously. “Uh… Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Reed,” Christian says. “But, I’m sorry… what are you doing here?”

“I think I can help you find who’s been after Ana, or you, or whatever is going on. I think I can help you figure out who it is.”

Christian’s face goes blank. “You can?”

“Yeah. I uh… I got a phone call. Whoever he is, he wants my help.”

Next Chapter

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